25 African migrants traveling to Italy by boat have died because of overcrowding. The boat, which left the shore of Libya was so packed with people that it was difficult for them to breathe.
Coast Guard Captain, Antonio Morana said the 50-foot (15-meter) boat was carrying 296 people, including women and children.
Among them were hundreds of migrants fleeing unrest and conflict in Libya and across North Africa. About 50 Somalis fleeing famine were believed to be on board.
Some were stowed away in the hold, which also served as an engine room. As the air became dangerous to inhale from exhaust fumes, migrants tried to exit but the boat was too packed for those standing above to move aside.
Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman in Italy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said, “From what they told us upon arrival, there was no air to breathe, apparently they were so crammed there was nowhere to go. This leads to a situation on board where your death is my life, where you risk it all. It’s ferocious.” Some of the migrants may have died from asphyxiation, she said.
She added that the desperate conditions apparently also led to tension and possible scuffles on board as people struggled to survive. However, she stressed that an investigation under way in the nearby city of Agrigento was necessary to ascertain what happened.
The officials found the corpses – all young men – after boarding the boat just a few miles off Lampedusa, the small island closer to North Africa than the Italian mainland.
The bodies were put in green bags and lined up on Lampedusa’s deck, before being moved to an immigrant shelter on the island. An autopsy will be performed, according to Agrigento Prosecutor, Renato Di Natale, who will conduct the investigation.
Survivors were taken ashore and also moved to the immigrant shelter. “The survivors are shocked,” Boldrini added.
Some 20,000 people have arrived in Italy by boat in recent months following unrest in Libya and Tunisia. In April, a boat believed to be carrying 300 migrants from Libya capsized, leaving 250 people presumed dead.