Tragedy strikes African migrants headed to Italy seeking asylum

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. A boat carrying hundreds of migrants from Africa sank today in the Mediterranean Sea just short of its intended destination, the Italian island of Lampedusa. At least 100 people drowned and over 200 are missing. This is not an isolated incident, sadly. Hundreds die each year in similar tragedies, part of a constant exodus of African asylum seekers going to Europe for refuge. Reporter Megan Williams in Rome has been to Lampedusa many times. What is known so far about this tragedy, Megan?

Megan Williams: Well, I think this is the worst one that has ever happened off the coast of Lampedusa, which is a southern Sicilian island. Early this morning a boat with approximately 500 people half a mile from Lampedusa, so not very far, caught fire. Now apparently what happened is the motor broke and the boat was flooded with water. People panicked so they lit a sheet on fire, but gasoline had mixed with the water so the whole boat caught fire and people started jumping into the water. Two fishing vessels saw the fire and came to their rescue, but of course couldn't put all those people on the boat, called the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard came but by then many people had drowned.

Werman: So they started that fire to attract attention to their problematic situation. The boat's 70 feet long and they had nearly 500 people on board? That just seems insane.

Williams: It does, but it's very typical of the type of boats that cross over from Libya. Most of them, they're generally people from Somalia, from Eritrea, this boat had people from Ghana as well. They're people who have traveled from conflict situations, come to Libya, pay traffickers, and get on these incredibly dangerous little boats.

Werman: You said a few of these people on this boat were from Ghana. Have you ever met one of these migrants and just asked them, given the risks, why do they come?

Williams: Oh, yeah, I've met a lot of them over the years. A few years ago there were about 5,000 from Tunisia. I mean, the answer is simple. They're desperate. They come from places where there is war, their, often, family members have been killed, they can't make a living. Libya used to be a place that welcomed a lot of African migrant workers, but since the civil war there and the turmoil, those people can't find jobs there anymore, so even more people have come over since.

Werman: Reporter Megan Williams in Rome. Thanks so much.

Williams: Thanks, Marco.

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