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Over 800 illegal immigrants heading to Italy from Libya die in shipwreck

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An Italian Navy officer gives instructions to migrants waiting to disembark from Italian Navy ship “Driade” in Messina’s port, Sicily, Italy, April 18, 2015.

The UN refugee agency has confirmed that 800 people lost their lives in a ship accident in the Mediterranean Sea this weekend.

“We can say that 800 are dead,” said Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in Italy on Tuesday after speaking to the survivors of the disaster.

Representatives from the UN agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said they had interviewed the majority of the 27 survivors as they were brought to Italy on a coast guard vessel. One other survivor was taken to hospital in Catania, on Sicily’s east coast.

“There were a little over 800 people on board, including children aged between 10 and 12… They had left Tripoli (the Libyan capital) at about 8 am on Saturday,” Sami said.

She added that the survivors hailed from Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Somalia, Eritrea and Bangladesh, and that all had been taken to nearby holding centers.

Meanwhile, the Italian coastguard said they had recovered 24 bodies, refusing to confirm the UNHCR death toll.

Italy’s Infrastructure Minister Graziano Delrio said on Tuesday that authorities arrested two survivors of the migrant boat disaster on suspicion of human trafficking after the men, one of them believed to be a Tunisian and the other a Syrian, arrived in the Sicilian port of Catania.

Earlier on Sunday, an Italian prosecutor said that an unidentified Bangladeshi survivor claimed that 950 migrants had been on board the vessel when it capsized on April 16. Earlier estimates put the number of those believed to have been on board at 700. The survivor, who was at a hospital in the Italian city of Catania, said about 200 women and dozens of children were among the passengers and some 300 people were in the hold of the fishing vessel when it overturned, prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said.

Italy’s Premier Matteo Renzi said on Sunday that Italian authorities were “not in a position to confirm or verify” how many were on board when the boat set out from Libya. Renzi also said that 18 ships joined the rescue effort, confirming that 28 survivors were rescued and 24 bodies had been pulled from the water so far.

The ship capsized about 60 miles (96 kilometers) off the Libyan coast and 120 miles (193 kilometers) south of the Italian island of Lampedusa on its way to Europe. The survivors were rescued after a helicopter saw them floating in the sea.

About 170,000 migrants entered the EU through Italy last year, with most of them departing from Libya, according to latest reports.

Humanitarian organizations say there has been a recent surge in the number of the immigrants making the deadly journey across the Mediterranean Sea from different routes into the European Union (EU) as weather and sea conditions improve with the coming of spring.

At least 3,419 illegal migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea last year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.

Most of the migrants set off from crisis-hit countries such as Syria, Iraq and Libya in an attempt to reach Italy or Malta.

On Monday, the EU announced a 10-point action plan aimed at curtailing the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean and vowed to increase control and rescue operations.

The plan, which was approved by EU foreign and interior ministers during an emergency meeting in Luxembourg, will be presented to a summit on Thursday, a European Commission statement said.

Hussein has slammed the EU migration policies as “callous,” warning that the current situation is turning the Mediterranean into a “vast cemetery.”


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