At least 29 migrants have died of hypothermia, after initially being rescued alive by the Italian coastguard off the coast of Libya, according to latest reports.
Two coastguard ships were dispatched after a ship carrying over 200 migrants let off a distress call as it was battered by waves as high as 25 feet, reports the New York Times. The victims, all men, died as the coastguard attempted to take them to the nearest Italian port on the island on Lampedusa.
Italian coastguard spokesperson Cmdr. Filippo Marini, said the migrants were “devastated by the weather and sea conditions, and by the trip they had undertaken just to reach their boat.”
The deaths come following the suspension of an Italian navy-run rescue program known as Mare Nostrum, with a more limited operation by Frontex, the European border patrol agency, taking its place.
Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration said it could be argued “that this is the first consequence of the absence of Mare Nostrum.”
Meanwhile the mayor of Lampedusa Giusi Nicolini was more damning, saying "Mare Nostrum was an emergency solution to a humanitarian crisis, so closing it was a huge and intolerable step backward."
“We need to intervene in a much more structured way and should not delude ourselves that Triton is the answer,” she added.
An estimated 170,000 migrants reached Italy by sea last year, most of them from Syria and Eritrea according to reports. About 3,000 died trying to reach the country.
Lampedusa’s health director, Pietro Bartolo, also commented on the disaster, saying she was “distraught”. “We could have avoided this massacre," she said. "With the end of Mare Nostrum we’re back to counting the dead at sea.”