500 Feared Dead as Migrant Boat Sinks Off Malta

Migrants sit in a boat during a rescue operation off the coast of Sicily on Sunday.
Migrants sit in a boat during a rescue operation off the coast of Sicily on Sunday.Italian Navy via AFP - Getty Images

An estimated 500 migrants died when their boat sank while making the desperate sea crossing from North Africa to Europe, officials said Monday. According to two survivors picked up separately and interviewed by the International Organization of Migration, the vessel was rammed by the migrants' own traffickers after the refugees refused to transfer to a less sea-worthy boat. The survivors, both Palestinians, clung to a life ring until a merchant vessel spotted them two days later, IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle told NBC News. Seven others slipped below the waves before rescue arrived. The ship, which left the Egyptian city of Damietta on September 6, sank off Malta's coast on Thursday.

The number of migrants killed while attempting the crossing has skyrocketed from 700 last year to more than 2,500 so far this year, according to United Nations figures. The IOM was Monday investigating another sinking off Libya that may have killed another 200 people. News of the sinking came as Angelina Jolie, a U.N. special envoy on migration, visited migrant survivors on Malta and toured a navy ship involved in rescues. "We have to understand what drives people to take the fearful step of risking their children's lives on crowded, unsafe vessels," she said in a U.N. statement. "It is the overwhelming desire to find refuge."


- Alexander Smith