A boat packed with African migrants headed to Europe caught fire, capsized, and sank Thursday off the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, killing more than 90 people and leaving 250 missing, officials said.
The tragedy was the latest in a series of maritime incidents involving Europe-bound migrants, tens of thousands of whom flee war-torn and poverty-stricken countries in Africa and Asia every year seeking European prosperity.
The boat carrying an estimated 500 men, women, and children, mainly from Eritrea and Somalia, was traveling from the Libyan coast when the fire broke out at dawn near Lampedusa, an island just 86 miles from Tunisia.
As the fire raged, terrified migrants rushed to one side of the 65 foot-long boat, causing it to capsize about half a nautical mile off the island’s coast, officials said. The Italian coast guard rescued about 150 people but another 250 were still missing hours after the disaster happened, said Antonio Candela, a government health commissioner.
Italian television showed recovered bodies lined up along the quayside of the island’s tiny port. More than 90 bodies had been recovered by midday Thursday, according to Angelino Alfano, a deputy prime minister.
"It's horrific, like a cemetery. They are still bringing them out," said Giusi Nicolini, Lampedusa’s mayor.
“We don’t have space for all the bodies – there’s no room to bury them. It’s a dreadful tragedy. How many more tragedies like this have to happen before concrete measures are taken to prevent them?” Ms. Nicolini said.
Italian police arrested a Tunisian man who came ashore with the survivors on suspicion of being one of the human traffickers who had arranged the passage. He was reportedly identified as a smuggler by the other passengers, according to Nicolini.
Italy is accustomed to the sight of exhausted immigrants coming ashore in leaky, converted fishing trawlers and open-sided boats, but the scale of this tragedy appeared to shake many in Italy.
According to Fortress Europe, an Italian blog that tracks such deaths, an estimated 13,800 people have died trying to reach Europe from North Africa in the last 15 years, drowning when their boats’ engines failed or the vessels started taking on water. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 1,500 people died in the Mediterranean in 2011 alone.
In the first six months of 2013, nearly 8,400 migrants and asylum-seekers arrived in Italy and neighboring Malta, according to the UNHCR.
Migrants typically each pay around $1,600 to be taken from the coasts of Libya and Tunisia to Lampedusa or Malta, the closest pieces of European territory to North Africa.
Italian officials have complained that the country received little help from the rest of the European Union to deal with the influx of migrants, which has increased since the Arab Spring political upheavals in countries like Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.
Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, called on the EU to do more to help stem "a succession of massacres of innocent people.”
The accident was "a European tragedy, not just an Italian one,” said Mr. Alfano, the deputy prime minister.
“We have seen similar tragedies for years and we’ve pronounced words of sincere emotion, but without finding any solutions,” said Laura Boldrini, who was a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees before being elected to Italy’s lower house of parliament earlier this year.
Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said Europe needed to improve its efforts to prevent these tragedies, including targeting human smuggling networks.