Survivors of a vessel smuggling migrants from Libya to Italy last week describe tales of brutality and mass murder during their voyage. The International Organization for Migration reports the boat sailed from Libya with 750 migrants aboard and arrived in Italy with 569. It says as many as 180 people are believed to have perished.
The voyage, which began in Libya, ended Saturday with the Italian navy rescuing hundreds of migrants from the overcrowded smuggler's boat. Survivors recount tales of horrifying brutality, racism, discrimination and clashes among the different ethnic groups aboard the vessel.
A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, Flavio di Giacomo, has interviewed about 25 survivors in a reception center in Sicily. He says all are young men between the ages of 18 and 24 from Sub-Saharan Africa. He says all are traumatized by their ordeal.
The spokesman says the smugglers had assigned migrants from Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Morocco places on the two upper decks where they could catch a sea breeze. The migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa did not fare as well. He says the smugglers forced all of them to go into the hold of the boat.
"It means that they were forced by smugglers with knives and they were beaten by smugglers and they were cut. Actually, I saw their cuts on their bodies - and to sit in the hold close to the engine ... the situation is very dangerous, it is very painful because it is hot. There is no air. You can die as happened actually. But, they have no other choice," said di Giacomo.
He says the Africans were beaten back when they tried to go to an upper deck to get fresh air. He says 29 migrants died from heat and asphyxiation after being forced to remain in the hold. He says witnesses told him that many of the migrants were kicked and stabbed and about 60 were thrown overboard into the sea.
He says the African migrants aboard the boat were from Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Ivory Coast and Gambia. He says many were fleeing wars, religious persecution and collapsing economies.
He calculates the smugglers made about $670,000 from this one dangerous voyage.
"The smugglers, they are characterized also by a very racist behavior towards African migrants, those who arrive from Sub-Saharan Africa. Those who are let us say black... While the other nationalities have life jackets... they are not even provided with any life jackets because actually, probably their lives have less value for the smugglers," he said.
Di Giacomo says five people accused of violence and murder have been arrested and are under investigation.
The U.N. refugee agency reports more than 800 people have died this year alone in the Mediterranean, many of them seeking safety from conflict and civil war. It estimates more than 75,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta by sea in the first half of 2014.