Tragedy Strikes Hundreds of Migrants Bound for Italy

Chilling photographs show a desperate journey across the Mediterranean.

The mood aboard the boats had gone from hope to horrific tragedy. After hundreds of migrants left the north coast of Libya earlier this week in a large wooden boat and several smaller rubber crafts, they made it just 12 miles offshore before rescuers rushed to find the boats crowded, some five times beyond their capacity. And among the crowds, 32 dead bodies.


One wooden boat and several smaller boats held hundreds of migrants en route from Libya to Italy.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARIS MESSINIS, AFP/GETTY

Aris Messinis, a photographer for Agence France-Presse, was aboard the rescue boat. When he and rescuers from Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish aid organization, came upon the scene, many of the migrants began to shout frantically. Some jumped into the water.


Migrants step over people who have died, many due to drowning or asphyxiation.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARIS MESSINIS, AFP/GETTY


The boats drifted 12 nautical miles north of Libya before rescuers met them with additional boats and resources.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARIS MESSINIS, AFP/GETTY


A migrant is rescued by aid workers, who frequently intercept overcrowded boats fleeing Africa and the Middle East.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARIS MESSINIS, AFP/GETTY


Migrants try to prevent a child from drowning as they wait to be rescued.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARIS MESSINIS, AFP/GETTY

"We tried to calm them down. We tried to tie their boat and drag it closer to the area where the rescue operations were happening," says Messinis. "We were shouting, 'Don't jump, don't jump!' They were very panicked."

Both 2015 and 2016 have seen steep rises in migrations of refugees fleeing from unstable humanitarian and political conditions in Africa and the Middle East. Last year, more than a million refugees left ports in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Turkey to travel by sea to seek refuge in Spain, Italy, and Greece. The number of arrivals by sea has dropped in 2016 to roughly 300,000, but the numbers remain higher than historical averages. In all, over the past 20 months, the UN Refugee Agency has declared 3,521 people dead or missing while attempting Mediterranean crossings.

Migrants wait to be rescued by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO in the Mediterranean Sea, some 12 nautical miles north of Libya, on October 4, 2016.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARIS MESSINIS, AFP/GETTY

The scene on Tuesday off the coast of Libya—an area where political instability has made it a common embarkation point for refugees—started hopeful, with a stretch of good weather. But by the time rescuers had secured the boats, nearly three dozen refugees had died, either from drowning or asphyxiation in such crowded conditions.


Members of Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish NGO, evacuate a dead body on a stretcher during rescue operations.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARIS MESSINIS, AFP/GETTY


The primary wooden ship contained three levels. Dead bodies lie on the bottom level, the people believed to have died from either drowning on board or from asphyxiation.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARIS MESSINIS, AFP/GETTY

Messinis compared the condition of overpacked boats to overcrowded slave ships that left Africa hundreds of years ago. Yet despite the migrant boats being in a different century and under a different context, he found the scene no less awful. "It's not the first time this has happened," he says, "and I think it probably won't be the last."


A life boat, carrying the bodies of 29 refugees and migrants who died on a rubber boat while crossing the Mediterranean Sea, is dragged by a rescue boat.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ARIS MESSINIS, AFP/GETTY

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