Friday’s capsizing occurred 65 miles southeast of Lampedusa, but in waters where Malta has search and rescue responsibilities.
The two shipwrecks were the latest grim reminder of the extreme risks that migrants and asylum-seekers often take in an effort to slip into Europe every year by boat. Facing unrest and persecution in Africa and the Middle East, many of the migrants think the Lampedusa escape route to Europe, which is barely 70 miles from northern Africa, is worth the risk.
“They do know that they are risking their lives, but it is a rational decision,” said Maurizio Albahari, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. “Because they know for a fact they will be facing death or persecution at home — whatever remains of their home, or assuming there is a home in the first place.”
What drives them is the hope that they’ll have a better life in Europe for themselves and their children, he said. “It’s either perish or go somewhere.”
In the latest case, the Italian coast guard said it received a satellite phone call from the boat that it was in distress and was able to locate it based on the satellite coordinates, said coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla.
A Maltese aircraft was sent up and reported that the boat had capsized and that “numerous” people were in the water. The aircraft dropped a life raft, and a patrol boat soon arrived at the scene, according to a statement from the Maltese armed forces.
Late Friday, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat reported that 27 bodies had been recovered, three of them children.
He said 150 survivors were rescued aboard a Maltese ship. An Italian patrol boat had another 56 survivors, while a fishing boat had 15, said Cmdr. Marco Maccaroni of the Italian navy. Between the Italian and Maltese ships, the total of survivors came to 221, though it wasn’t clear if the injured who were flown by helicopter to Lampedusa were included in that figure.
The incident occurred as recovery operations continued Friday off Lampedusa for victims of the Oct. 3 shipwreck. The death toll stood Friday at 339, including a newborn recovered with its umbilical cord still attached, Di Milla said.
Lampedusa is the destination of choice for smugglers who usually charge more than $1,355 a head and cram the migrants onto boats that routinely run into trouble and require rescue. Fortress Europe, an Italian observatory that tracks migrant deaths reported by the media, says about 6,450 people died in the Canal of Sicily between 1994 and 2012.
Once in Italy, the migrants are screened for asylum and often sent back home if they don’t qualify. During the 1990s and early 2000s, many of the arrivals were considered “economic migrants.” But many of the latest arrivals are fleeing persecution and conflict in places such as Syria and Eritrea, and qualify for refugee status, U.N. officials say.