Stabbed, then thrown overboard: Italian police tell of horrific struggle aboard migrant boat

Up to 60 passengers heading to Italy murdered after trying to escape suffocating conditions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 1:39am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 4:18am

Italian police arrested five men yesterday on suspicion of murdering and throwing overboard dozens of migrants crossing from Libya. Another three were charged with people smuggling.

Survivors told police a life-or-death fight broke out when those who were riding in the hold, suffocating from heat and lack of oxygen, desperately tried to find room on the packed deck.

To keep the migrants below the deck, the five men indiscriminately stabbed and assaulted an estimated 60 of their fellow migrants before throwing them overboard, according to police, and then threatening the others not to react or face the same end.

Twenty-nine bodies were later recovered from the hold of what had been a badly overcrowded fishing boat. Another passenger died en route to an Italian hospital, probably from carbon monoxide poisoning, the navy said.

The bodies of the migrants said to have been thrown overboard have not been recovered.

Some 561 migrants on the boat were rescued and taken to the Sicilian city of Messina on Sunday. According to some of the migrants, they paid people smugglers between US$1,000 and US$2,000 for a place on deck, and between US$200 and US$500 for one in the hold.

The excessive heat and fumes from the engine drove those in the hold to try to get out. When they were pushed back and the ladder to the deck was removed and the portal closed, the migrants in the hold mutinied, police said.

"In a matter of minutes the heat became unbearable and the air was unbreathable due to the fumes from the engine," a police statement said. "Desperation drove the prisoners to force open the door and climb onto deck, where the tragedy occurred."

According to the testimony of "numerous" migrants, the five men - two Moroccans, a Saudi Arabian, a Syrian and a Palestinian - "randomly" assaulted dozens with knives and their fists, throwing overboard their victims as friends and relatives watched, police said.

Calmer summer seas have led to a surge in people trying to reach Italy from North Africa. Italy has picked up more than 82,000 migrants so far this year in its search-and-rescue mission, called "Mare Nostrum" or "Our Sea", about 20,000 more than were picked in the whole of 2013.

The number of dead is also rising. At the start of July, the UN refugee agency estimated 500 migrants had died in the Mediterranean in the past six months, compared with 700 during all of last year. Bodies have been recovered almost daily this month.

Italy is struggling to keep up with the increase in migrant boats this year and has asked the European Union for more help in rescuing and housing the migrants.

Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta have been left mostly on their own to manage the growing number of migrants, partly because increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in countries such as Britain and France makes it unpopular to help out.