(Vatican Radio) The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 700 people fleeing war and poverty are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in recent days, and survivors claim dozens of children are among those feared dead.
The UNHCR also warned Europe that the death toll will rise further unless more legal ways are opened for asylum seekers in Europe.
Listen to the report by Stefan Bos:
The week of shipwrecks and death in the Mediterranean culminated with harrowing testimony from refugees who narrowly survived these tragedies. They said hundreds have drowned including at least 40 children. On Sunday, the UNHCR, the UN's main refugee agency, their stories saying many drowned in three Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks south of Italy.
UNHCR spokesperson Carlotta Sami said thousands had been rescued since Monday, May 23. "Fifteen thousand people have been rescued by the Italian coast guard and by the Italian coast guard and many other assets," she said.
"But from survivors who are still landing in Italy we heard that at least 700 people may have died and gone missing. Several bodies have been recovered out of three ships wrecks that happened on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday," Sami explained.
"There were other incidents. Like for example four women have died because of suffocation and burns and we have an orphan of nine months only. And several other people have fallen out of the boat," she added.
The Italian navy released video of an operation last week in which it said 562 people were rescued and five found dead. A large wooden fishing boat carrying desperate people capsized off the coast of Libya. Hundreds of migrants were seen in the water swimming away as Italian sailors threw life jackets.
An Italian navy patrol boat had approached the vessel to hand out life jackets, but before it could begin a rescue the boat flipped over due to the sudden movement of passengers.
A helicopter, and several rubber motor boats were eventually used in the rescue operations. Yet, UNHCR spokeswoman Sami warns of more tragedies to come. "What is happening...this is the new normal. It is awful,but basically the central Mediterranean route is confirmed as the most dreadful," she said.
"It is very much needed to open some legal way for those who have right to asylum to arrive to arrive into Europe otherwise they will continue to get into these really flimsy boats," the spokeswoman stressed.
She added that survivors said human smugglers often push people out of boats into the sea. But for now, the European Union seems unwilling to take in many more refugees. The Balkan route is virtually closed off and several EU countries don't even want to participate in a plan to distribute some 160.000 refugees among member states.