More than 700 people fleeing Africa and the Middle East may have drowned in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean over the last week, bringing the death toll this year to almost 3,000, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Monday.
In the worst incident, as many as 500 migrants are believed to have died after traffickers rammed their ship off Malta's coast last week, an event that only came to light this weekend in testimony from two of nine survivors.
The survivors said the traffickers ordered the migrants to change vessels in the middle of the Mediterranean. The migrants refused, leading to a confrontation that ended when traffickers rammed the ship carrying the migrants, causing it to sink, IOM spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume told Reuters in Geneva.
"Some 500 people were on board - Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Sudanese. They were trying to reach Europe," Berthiaume said.
"That means that 700 people perished at sea these last days in the Mediterranean, the deadliest incidents in the space of a few days," she said.
The vessel had set off on Saturday, Sept 6 from Damiette, Egypt, and sank off Malta's coast on Sept 10th, she said, adding that some of the survivors were only rescued on Friday.
The U.N. refugee agency also learned of the shipwreck off Malta, but said its information was that it occurred on Friday. The UNHCR could not confirm the circumstances of the incident but understood that the death toll was closer to 300.
"We don't have confirmation of this account of alleged ramming. That was given to Malta authorities by survivors, but we can't confirm it," said UNHCR spokesman Francis Markus.
The UNHCR was trying to get confirmation of five shipwrecks in all. "At least 500 people have died or are missing in the last three days", he said.