At least 700 migrants may have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, the UN's refugee agency has said. Hundreds of others are missing after their boats capsized in the waters.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Sunday that several shipwrecks had taken place over the weekend as migrants tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea in flimsy vessels.
Nearly 600 people were missing after boats capsized on Wednesday and Thursday, the UNHCR's spokeswoman, Carlotta Sami, told journalists.
One of the boats, according to Sami, was carrying about 670 people. It did not have an engine and was being towed by another smuggling boat before it capsized. Some 25 people from the vessel managed to reach the towing boat and survived the tragedy. In another shipwreck on Friday, 45 people died and 135 migrants were rescued.
Survivors were being taken to Taranto and Pozallo in Italy, Sami said, adding that her agency was trying to gather information on the arrivals.
According to survivor testimony, dozens of those who had lost their lives were children. The rescued migrants also shared with authorities the harrowing story of how the Sudanese captain had cut a rope on the ship as it started to flounder, which snapped back and decapitated a woman. The captain was arrested upon arrival in Pozallo.
Rights group reports refugee deaths
Humanitarian organization Save the Children also reported three separate instances of boat capsizing recently. Numerous asylum seekers who had survived the ordeal corroborated the reports, saying that the boat started to fill with water, forcing the captain of the tugboat that was towing the vessel to cut the towing line.
According to the Italian coastguard and the UN, 14,000 people were saved during operations in the Mediterranean last week. It remains unclear, however, how many people drowned in bids to reach Europe over the same period. The Italian navy confirmed that it pulled out 45 bodies overnight.
"It's obvious that no matter the great effort made by rescuers, when the numbers are as high as we're seeing this week, it's very risky," said Federico Fossi, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rome.
Migrant influx picking up again
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says it estimates that close to 1,500 people have drowned at sea on their journey to the European continent so far this year.
The number of people managing to successfully reach the mainland, chiefly Italy, is apparently comparable to the same period last year and the year before, refuting claims about the refugee crisis having slowed down.
"It's astounding. We are almost at the level of the Greek islands last year," said Flavio di Giacomo, a spokesman for IOM, referring to a period when thousands arrived there from Turkey every day.
The coastguard said that the warmer weather and calmer seas in recent days had led to a surge in the number of people trying to cross from Libya, where people smugglers operate with widespread impunity.
IOM added that in 2014 and 2015, more than 320,000 migrants on boats arrived on Italian shores, and an estimated 7,000 died in the Mediterranean.
Pope weighs in on refugee debate
Holding a life jacket from a young migrant girl who perished at sea, Pope Francis on Saturday told hundreds of children at the Vatican that migrants "are not dangerous, but in danger."
"Think about this girl. What was her name? I don't know: a child without a name. Each of you must give her the name you want to. She is in heaven; she is watching over us," he said. The pontiff told the group of Italian children and migrants that a rescue worker in the Mediterranean had given him the life jacket in tears after he had failed to save the young girl's life.
The pontiff has been a vocal supporter of migrant rights, and recently highlighted their plight by visiting the Aegean island of Lesbos in April and bringing 12 refugees back to the Vatican with him.
ss/gsw (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)