ROME — Another boat full of North Africans bound for Europe met a tragic end, when a signal fire on board ignited gasoline, and the resulting fire panicked passengers who capsized the boat. Many could not swim and drowned.
The boat was a quarter-mile away from an island off Sicily.
The accident, which occurred before dawn on Thursday within easy eyesight of the island of Lampedusa, is one of the worst in recent memory in the Mediterranean: at least 111 people were reported dead, with up to 250 still missing. At least 150 others survived, and Italy’s Coast Guard searched for more survivors.
The deaths again underscored the dangerous, desperate efforts by many migrants from Africa and the Middle East to reach Europe by sea, while also renewing criticism of European immigration policy. Immigration is a politically volatile issue in Europe, so much so that Greece recently completed a nearly eight-mile fence blocking its border with Turkey, an attempt to shut down a major land migration route.
But some experts say that making it harder to slip into Europe by land has only pushed many migrants to try the more perilous route by sea. With conflicts raging in the Middle East and Africa, the number of asylum seekers and migrants arriving by boat in Spain and Italy has spiked this year. According to statistics released by Save the Children, 21,780 migrants reached Italy during the first nine months of this year, including 4,000 children.
Pope Francis this summer made the sign of the cross and tossed a wreath of white and yellow flowers into the Mediterranean Sea in memory of the estimated 20,000 African immigrants who have died in the past 25 years trying to reach a new life in Europe.
In his homily at an outdoor Mass,Francis said he decided to visit Lampedusa, a small island with a population of 6,000 and just 70 miles from Tunisia, after seeing newspaper headlines in June describing the drowning of immigrants at sea.
"Those boats, instead of being a means of hope, were a means of death," he said.
"Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours?" the pope asked in his homily. "All of us respond: 'It wasn't me. I have nothing to do with it. It was others, certainly not me.'"
"Today no one feels responsible for this," he said. "We have lost a sense of fraternal responsibility" and are acting like those in the Gospel who saw the man who had been beaten, robbed and left on the road half dead, but they kept walking.
"Maybe we think, 'Oh, poor soul,' but we continue on our way," the pope said.
"The culture of well-being, which leads us to think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of others," Pope Francis said, adding that the globalization of the world's economy in many cases has led to "the globalization of indifference."