Smugglers locked victims below deck in disaster as more boats sink
Struggling ashore on a beach popular with tourists, a group of migrants whose boat sank off the Greek island of Rhodes yesterday showed the growing scale of Europe's people-smuggling crisis.
Their ramshackle wooden sailboat, with at least 90 people on board, capsized off the Aegean Sea resort's main beach at Zefyros, drowning three people including a young child.
The chaotic scenes on Europe's southern shores - which followed the deaths of more than 1,000 people in two separate sinkings in the past week - were matched by chaos among Europe's leaders over how to respond.
Heads of state will hold an emergency meeting on Thursday that will aim to address the problem once and for all. Last night, they promised to extend search-and-rescue missions, and to step up efforts against smuggling gangs.
But, while Federica Mogherini, the European Union's new foreign policy chief, hailed the plans as proof that Europe had "finally" woken up to the crisis, bitter divisions emerged between aid agencies calling for a more open-door policy towards migrants, and governments anxious to address voter concerns over illegal immigration.
More than 10,000 migrants have arrived in Italy in less than a fortnight, and as of last night, there were reported to be six separate ongoing operations to save a further 1,500 people on boats.
Fishermen and coast guards who raced to the scene of Sunday's disaster in the Mediterranean have described their dismay at what they found, as the Italian prosecutor leading the investigation confirmed that most of those on board were forcibly locked in to the hold of the boat.
The 70-ft long vessel, which set out from the coast of Libya, capsized in the early hours of Sunday with the loss of between 700 and 900 people.
The boat had three levels, and only those on the upper level had any chance of surviving when the boat capsized, apparently after migrants rushed to one side of the ship when they saw a passing Portuguese merchant ship they believed would rescue them.
The asylum seekers are believed to have included 200 women and dozens of children. "A few hundred were forced into the hold, the lowest level. They were locked in and prevented from coming out," said Giovanni Salvi, a prosecutor in Catania, who is leading the criminal investigation.
Rescuers said they had found the 28 survivors desperately struggling to stay afloat, surrounded by dead bodies and yelling for help.
Matteo Renzi, Italy's prime minister, compared the desperate plight of the tens of thousands of people trying to cross the Mediterranean with the condition of slaves transported across the Atlantic from the Americas.
"Three or four centuries ago, unscrupulous men traded in human lives ... exactly the same thing is happening now."