At least 700 migrants trying to reach Italy via the central Mediterranean died in sea accidents over the past seven days, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said Sunday, almost doubling this year's estimated death tally.
UNHCR Rome spokeswoman Carlotta Sami told dpa that 550 people were missing from a boat that overturned on Thursday; about 100 may be inside the hold of another vessel that sank on Wednesday; and there was an unknown number of missing from a third shipwreck on Friday.
"Totting up these grim numbers, we estimate that there are at least 700 victims, with no certainty on the figures and on their identities," the spokeswoman said.
Migrants who survived other recent sea crossings also reported missing people, Sami said. For example, the mother of the 9-month girl who arrived on the island of Lampedusa on Wednesday and whose plight triggered a nationwide outpouring of compassion.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a medical charity which is running a naval rescue mission, gave even higher estimates. "Around 900 people may have died in the Central Mediterranean in the last week alone. Europe, this is unbearable," it wrote on Twitter.
Earlier in the week, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that there had been 1,093 migrant deaths on the central Mediterranean in the year to date, down from 1,782 in January-May 2015.
The latest figures would even out the death tolls for 2015 and 2016.
"The [European] Commission deplores the tragic loss of life which have occurred in the Mediterranean over the past days - every life lost is one too many," a spokeswoman for the European Union's executive, Tove Ernst, told dpa.
She said the commission was drafting a paper that would acknowledge Italy's Migration Compact - a plan offering aid to African nations in return for tightening their borders - and inform discussions on migration at an EU summit on June 28-29.
The latest deadly incidents took place amid a surge of sea migration to Italy. Its coastguard coordinated the rescue of about 13,000 people since Monday - plus the recovery of 50 bodies - whereas in the previous seven days, fewer than 1,700 sea migrants arrived.
Some 629 survivors and 45 corpses arrived Sunday at the port of Reggio Calabria, at the tip of Italy's boot. The dead comprised 36 women, six men and three children of ages ranging from 6 months to 2 years, the ANSA news agency said.
An MSF vessel took another 604 migrants to Palermo. A local doctor, Giuseppe Termini, told ANSA that fifteen pregnant women were among them, including an underage rape victim. A further 382 migrants landed in Messina, another Sicilian port.
MSF doctor Paola Mazzoni told SkyTG24 news channel that Libyan militia fighters routinely raped migrant girls held in captivity, and said those rescued "are people who have been suffering for months from hunger, cold, deprivation and violence."
After days of frantic activities, Sunday seemed calmer for rescuers. The most recent report from the Italian Coastguard was an overnight Twitter message about 40 people saved from a dinghy off the island of Lampedusa "after a difficult search."
The UN envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, told French newspaper Journal de Dimanche about smugglers' ruthless methods: "[They] put the migrants in boats and don't give them enough fuel [...] Then they call the emergency number in Italy and say, 'prepare yourselves, 500 migrants are going to arrive!'"
Italy has become the main entry point for Europe-bound migrants following the closure of the Balkan route, passing through Greece and Turkey. IOM data shows that Greece had only 272 arrivals in the May 19-26 period, compared to 5,674 for Italy.
Italy-bound flows are expected to further increase as warmer weather encourages more departures. There is no indication, however, that Syrian refugees, who previously flocked to Greece, are now targeting Italian shores.
Sami said most of those who arrived this week came from the Horn of Africa or sub-Saharan Africa, but there were also nationals of Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and 26 Syrians who had been living in Libya for some time.
According to IOM data covering the first four months of 2016, the top nationalities among incoming sea migrants to Italy were: Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Guinea, Senegal, Mali and Sudan.