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'We cannot let Mediterranean become a cemetery': At least 39 dead as two more migrant boats sink

Echoes of last week’s Lampedusa disaster off Italian and Egyptian coasts

At least 39 people died tonight and more were feared to have drowned after two boats packed with migrants being smuggled across the Mediterranean into Europe sank.

One of the boats capsized off Lampedusa, the Italian island where 339 people drowned last week in one of the worst migrant shipping disasters in the Mediterranean, which prompted demands in Europe for action against the traffickers.

In today’s disasters, at least 248 people were pitched into the water when their boat got into trouble off Lampedusa, while more than 120 swam for their lives when a vessel capsized close to the port of Alexandria in Egypt.

A dozen people died off the Egyptian coast, with 116 people being rescued and taken to a nearby naval base. The coastguard said the survivors comprised 72 Palestinians, 40 Syrians and four Egyptians.

But the scale of tonight’s sinking off Lampedusa, in a chilling echo of last week’s disaster, was even worse, with early reports suggesting a death toll of 50. The Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said at least 27 bodies had already been recovered, of whom three were children.

"We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a cemetery," Muscat told a news conference in Valletta, the Maltese capital.

The vessel was 65 miles south-east of the island when a rescue mission was launched after a distress call was made from the boat on a satellite phone. The satellite co-ordinates pinpointed its position.

A Maltese aircraft spotted the upturned boat and reported that scores of people were in the water. The plane’s crew dropped a life raft, and a patrol boat soon reached the area to start picking up survivors.

In the joint Maltese-Italian rescue operation at least 221 people were picked up alive from the water with survivors being flown by helicoper for treatment in Lampedusa. Commander Marco Maccaroni of the Italian navy said 150 survivors were taken on board a Maltese ship, 56 on an Italian patrol boat and 15 more by a fishing boat. It was unclear if the injured were included in the totals.

The capsizing occurred a week after a migrant vessel from Libya caught fire and sank with some 500 people on board near Lampedusa. Only 155 survived. Recovery efforts continued yesterday, bringing the toll up to 339, including a newborn with its umbilical cord still attached.

In recent months, increasing numbers of Syrian migrants have been fleeing Egypt – in large part due to the rising levels of discrimination and xenophobia which followed the popular coup against former President Mohamed Morsi.

A six-day voyage to Sicily from north Africa can cost more than £2,000 per person, with many forced to sell their belongings to secure a spot.

According to the UN’s refugee agency, more than 3,400 refugees have attempted to make the crossing from Egypt to Europe since August this year. Once in Italy, the migrants are screened and often sent back home if they don’t qualify for asylum.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, many of the arrivals were considered “economic migrants”. But many of the latest arrivals are fleeing persecution and conflict in places such as Syria and Egypt, and qualify for refugee status, UN officials say.

Many eventually end up in northern Europe’s larger and more organised immigrant communities.

During a visit to Lampedusa this week, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso promised Italy some €30m in EU funds to better care for newly arrived migrants, and Italian officials pledged to put the issue on the agenda of an upcoming European Union summit and on the EU agenda next year.