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54 African migrants die trying to reach Italy on inflatable boat

July 11, 2012 | 10:31 am

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- One man survived. His 54 fellow migrants weren’t so lucky. They died of thirst during the 15-day voyage on an inflatable boat from Libya to Italy -- most of them so close to reaching their goal, U.N. officials said Wednesday.

The survivor, Abbes Settou, an Eritrean who drank seawater in desperation, was found by rescuers clinging to the remains of the rubber boat and a jerry can. He later told officials with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that 55 people boarded the boat in Libya in late June and within a day nearly reached the Italian coast, only to be swept out to sea and lost.

The boat began leaking air a few days after setting to sea, according to the U.N. agency. The migrants, without food or water as the days dragged on, began to die of thirst, hunger and exposure, according to Settou. Most reportedly were from Eritrea and Somalia.

Settou said the bodies of the dead were thrown overboard.

“This is a tragedy,” said T. Alexander Aleinikoff, U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees. “Fifty-four people have lost their lives. I call upon all vessels at sea to be on heightened alert for migrants and refugees needing rescue in the Mediterranean.

“The Mediterranean is one of the busiest seaways in the world and it is imperative that the time-honored tradition of rescue at sea be upheld.”

The mid-year summer months in northern Africa and Europe, when seas are calmest, is the time when most African migrants try to make the voyage to Europe, hoping for work and a better life.

Thousands attempt the crossing in fragile vessels from northern Africa, and some boats sink without any official confirmation. Families simply never hear of their loved ones again.

About 1,300 people have arrived by boat in Italy so far this year and another 1,000 people have reached Malta from Libya, according to the U.N. agency. On Monday, another vessel carrying about 50 migrants determined to reach Italy turned away a Maltese military ship offering to rescue them. Two other boats had earlier refused rescue by Maltese authorities, the agency said.

Another 170 are known to have perished this year attempting the journey, according to the agency.

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--Robyn Dixon

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