More than a dozen people have died on a migrant boat heading for Italy. The Italian navy reported that the harsh elements killed the refugees, who were seeking asylum in the EU.
The Italian navy announced on Friday that it had rescued more than 270 migrants stranded in the Strait of Sicily, but that 16 people had died on the inflatable boat they were traveling on. One more person died shortly after sailors arrived to help the refugees.
It is believed that the victims of this latest migrant boat tragedy died from hypothermia and dehydration on one of three vessels discovered south of the island of Lampedusa on Thursday.
The asylum-seekers had made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea on overcrowded outboard-powered boats.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced that about 3,200 migrants had died this year trying to reach European shores from Africa. Many had been fleeing conflict and human rights abuses in their native countries.
Rescue mission scaled back
Italy recently closed its Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission, which which had saved up to 100,000 migrants. A smaller pan-European project called Triton replaced the operation, a move that was heavily criticized across the EU, prompting calls for the whole bloc to help deal with the heavy influx of migrant boats.
Mare Nostrum, which had five warships on permanent patrol, was launched in October 2013 after more than 360 migrants died when their boat capsized a mile off the coast of Lampedusa.
The mission cost nearly 10 million euros ($12.4 million) a month, placing a major strain on Italy, which had suffered its third recession in six years.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano refused to make a link between the latest loss of life and the scaling back of the sea rescue mission.
"Unfortunately, we had migrant deaths even during Mare Nostrum," he said ahead of a meeting in Brussels with EU counterparts. He also said that just under 500 bodies had been recovered and 1,500 people reported missing in the 12 months to October.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said saving migrants at sea was "in principle right," but warned that large-scale rescue missions such as Mare Nostrum could not be sustained because they indirectly helped human traffickers.
"It was an incentive for smugglers to put people on overcrowded boats, and then to call the Italian navy and then to let these people, whose lives were put in danger, be saved," de Maiziere said, calling for harsher punishment for human traffickers and more help for the countries the refugees were escaping from.
Migrant boat off Spanish coast
Meanwhile, Spain's Marine Rescue service announced that it had saved 28 African migrants in an inflatable boat off the country's southeast coast and was searching for more than 20 others believed to be missing after the vessel hit stormy weather.
The rescue operation was carried out on Friday in the Mediterranean Sea, 20 miles (32 kilometers) off Cabo de Gata.
Survivors confirmed there had been more than 50 people onboard the boat, but that many had fallen into the sea when the vessel ran into high waves and winds on Thursday.
lw/mkg (AP, dpa)