Over one hundred African migrants are dead and many more are missing after a boat carrying up to 500 people sank off the coast of Lampedusa, an Italian island between the coastline of West Africa and Sicily. An ongoing operation by the Italian Coast Guard has saved at least 150 people, who have been brought to Lampedusa’s main port, which has the facilities to treat them.
Today there was some wind and rain between Libya, where the boat is believed to have launched from, and Sicily, but nothing severe enough to capsize a boat. Rather, the shipwreck is believed to have occurred because of a fire on board the vessel, which reportedly caused passengers to hurl themselves into the sea.
Citing the Italian Coast Guard, several news reports have stated that passengers on board the boat attempted to light a piece of material on fire to call attention to their vessel. However, this caused the overcrowded wooden boat to catch fire. The boat was only about half a mile from the coast of Sicily when it was engulfed in flames. Vessels in the area saw the burning boat and alerted the Italian Coast Guard. In response, Italian authorities sent out six boats and three helicopters to conduct a rescue operation.
Lampedusa is only about 70 miles (112 kilometers) from Sicily, which is the closest Italian island to Africa. It is a common destination for African refugees attempting to enter the European Union. Many migrants attempt to cross stretches of the Mediterranean Sea into the EU in overcrowded boats that are ill-equipped for the sea. Tragic shipwrecks are therefore lamentably common, although this most recent disaster is one of the worst in recent times.