The Libyan navy has called off its search for 250 or more migrants feared drowned after their flimsy boat sank in the Mediterranean. The vessel had made barely 30 miles from Sidi Bilal, near Tripoli, before it was capsized by strong winds. Designed to carry 50 people, it had on board nearly 300, all hoping to make new lives in Italy. Only 23 survivors have been found.
Another boat carrying 350 lost engine power and was drifting helplessly when it was spotted by an Italian tug and towed gingerly back to Tripoli. Migrants pay out about £1,000 each to make the hazardous crossing and 13,000 are estimated to have died during the last ten years. Many of the bodies are found by fishermen in their nets. Passengers on the rescued vessel came from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Somalia, Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia, Algeria and Morrocco.
There is usually a lull in the winter months, but this year observers say that, with the recession biting, the sailings have gone on all year round, and 31,000 people are estimated to have crossed from North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2008 alone.
During the 1980’s, the name “boat people” entered the language to describe those who fled South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. More than half a million tried to escape in similar flimsy boats. Often they fell victim to Thai fisherman turned pirates. From 1981 to 1983 alone, more than 750 were killed, and a further 600 disappeared. More than 800 women were raped.