ROME (Reuters) - Twenty-nine migrants died of hypothermia aboard Italian coast guard vessels on Monday after being picked up from a boat adrift near Libya, reigniting criticism of the government’s decision to end a full-scale search-and rescue mission last year.
Two patrol boats picked up 105 people late on Sunday from an inflatable boat drifting in extreme sea conditions, with waves as high as 8 metres (26 feet) and temperatures just a few degrees above zero, the coast guard said in a statement.
The migrants who died spent 18 hours on the deck of one of the vessels taking them to the Italian island of Lampedusa, buffeted by high winds and spray. One survivor was taken by helicopter to Sicily in critical condition, Pietro Bartolo, Lampedusa’s chief healthcare official, told Reuters.
Lampedusa’s mayor, Giusi Nicolini, blamed last year’s closure of Italy’s search-and-rescue mission, known as Mare Nostrum, for the tragedy. Since then no navy ships capable of keeping large numbers of migrants below deck have patrolled the waters near the Libyan coast.
“Mare Nostrum was an emergency solution to a humanitarian crisis, so closing it was a huge and intolerable step backward,” Nicolini told Reuters. Human rights groups had repeatedly warned that ending the mission would endanger lives.
“The small patrol boats were completely swallowed by the waves during the trip back. If Mare Nostrum were still going, the migrants would have been given shelter inside a large ship within an hour,” Nicolini said.
Laura Boldrini, the president of Italy’s lower house of parliament and a former spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, said on Twitter the “horror” of “people dying not in a shipwreck but of cold” was due to the suspension of Mare Nostrum.
Mare Nostrum was abandoned by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government partly due to public concern over the 114 million euro ($129 million) cost of the mission in its first year. Renzi has not commented on Monday’s events.
Former prime minister Enrico Letta started Mare Nostrum after more than 360 men, women and children — mostly Eritreans — drowned when their overcrowded boat flipped over within sight of Lampedusa in October, 2013.
Now the European Union runs a border control operation called Triton, with fewer ships and a much smaller area of operations.
Civil war in Syria and anarchy in Libya swelled the number of people crossing the Mediterranean last year. Many paid smugglers $1,000-$2,000 to travel.
The United Nations refugee agency says 160,000 people made the sea crossing to Italy between January and November 2014 and a further 40,000 landed in Greece. Thousands have died attempting the journey.
Bartolo said that the 29 victims were all young men from sub-Saharan Africa, but he did not know their nationalities.
“To organised crime it’s not important if people make it across the sea alive or dead,” Nicolini said. “But now, without Mare Nostrum, it’s as if no one, and not just the criminals, cares if they live or die.”
Editing by Robin Pomeroy