About 30 bodies have been found in a migrant boat stopped between Sicily and the North African coast, Italian news agencies reported Monday citing the navy and coastguard, bringing to nearly 700 the estimated number of Africans who have died in dangerous crossings on the high seas over the last year.
The rescuers made the latest gruesome discovery when they boarded a fishing boat carrying around 590 refugees and migrants to evacuate those in most distress, including two pregnant women.
The immigrants apparently died of asphyxiation, the news agencies said. It is not the first time Italian rescuers have found migrants dead on the overcrowded boats but never before in such large numbers.
The boat is being towed by the Italian navy and is expected to arrive later Monday in Pozzallo on the southeast coast of Sicily.
Over the past weekend more than 1,600 migrants were rescued by Italian authorities, bringing the total number of migrants so far this year to above 60,000.
The number is expected to soar past the record 63,000 set in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings.
Italy has long borne the brunt of migrants making the perilous crossing from North Africa to Europe, but EU border agency Frontex says there has been a significant rise in numbers in recent months.
The last few weeks have seen a series of tragedies, with 10 people drowning and 39 having to be rescued after their boat sank off the Libyan coast earlier in June.
Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano has called for the rescue operation to become a European initiative amid reports of thousands of migrants waiting in Libya to make the trip during the next few weeks.
The deaths added to a bad week for African migrants after about 1,000 others over the weekend marched out of a detention centre in Israel, protesting what they said was mistreatment by authorities.
The Eritrean and Sudanese migrants left the facility on Friday, saying Israel has deliberately delayed in processing the asylum claims.
“We cannot continue living in a cage in the desert, with no release and no judicial review,” they said in a statement.
Israel has been the reluctant home to tens of thousands of Africans who say they are fleeing persecution but whom the country says are instead looking for work.
The country has expressed fears that accepting many Africans threatens its Jewish identity.
In addition to building a fence along its hotspot border with Egypt, it has also offered incentives to migrants to leave, while also detaining many.
In May over 500 immigrants managed to force their way over razor-wire barriers into Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla.
The enclave is officially part of Spain, with Moroccan territory touching it along the Mediterranean sea.
Immigrants from all over Africa regularly attempt to cross the fences at Melilla and a second Spanish enclave along the coast, Ceuta.
This is often linked to the flight from tough environments back home, stoking fears in Europe of waves of migrants coming into their countries to upset the social order.
But analysts are increasingly challenging the narrative of “desperate” Africans fleeing poverty caused by war and conflict, fuelled by media images of migrants crammed aboard unseaworthy vessels.
Haas de Haas, the co-Director and Associate Professor, International Migration Institute (IMI) at the University of Oxford, has argued that migrants are often well educated and from reasonably well-off backgrounds, not in the least due to the high costs of the journey, and that such dangerous crossings were often their own initiative.
In what would go against popular perception, Prof Haas and others argue that sub-Saharan Africa is the least migratory region in the world.
Other observers say also that the underplayed benefits of cheap labour for destination countries has created an everyone-benefits regime hence the challenge of stemming the tide..