'Swallowed Up by the Waves'

As many as 300 migrants are feared dead after their inflatable boats overturned while trying to reach Italy.

The United Nations announced on Wednesday that as many as 300 migrants are thought to have perished in the Mediterranean Sea this week after their boats overturned while attempting to cross from Libya to Italy. Vincent Cochetel, the regional director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, called the incident a "tragedy on an enormous scale."

The migrants were “swallowed up by the waves,” another United Nations official said. Over the course of the past few months, several incidents involving migrants and refugees have captured (quickly fleeting) attention. Earlier this year, two cargo "ghost ships," carrying nearly 1,500 asylum-seekers and set to autopilot by fleeing smugglers, were rescued before they crashed into the Italian coast. That group constituted a tiny fraction of the 170,000 people intercepted by Italian rescuers in just over one year.

Late last year, the International Organization for Migration estimated that over 3,000 migrants had died while trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2014. "There needs to be a united response to the question of migration," said Pope Francis, following the rescue of 600 migrants traveling from North Africa to Sicily in November. "We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery."

This week's events involved four inflatable boats and severe weather. "The sea conditions were extreme," the AP reported, "with waves as high as eight metres (26 feet) and temperatures just a few degrees above zero. Twenty-nine died of hypothermia in the 18 hours it took the coast guard to ferry them to Italy."

The influx of migrants and refugees is coming from North Africa as well as the Middle East, where conflicts have spurred the largest mass migration since World War II—a time when, one expert told The Guardian, the migration was occurring in the opposite direction.

There are fears that the trend will only worsen. In October, Italy suspended Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue operation that was launched in 2013 following the deaths of several hundred migrants. Mare Nostrum was an aggressive undertaking that involved scanning the Libyan coastline looking for imperiled ships. Its replacement is Triton, a less-equipped European Union mission, which only monitors the waters close to Europe. However, by the time the boats get that far, it's often already too late.