Knife-wielding human traffickers who took charge of the migrant boat that sank off the coast of Libya this week slashed or thrashed the hundreds of migrants on board depending on their ethnicity.
Italian police said that witnesses accused the traffickers of “branding with their knives the heads of those who did not obey orders, particularly Africans, while those of Arab origin were thrashed with belts.”
The overcrowded fishing vessel was believed to have up to 700 people on board when it capsized this week. Rescuers managed to pull 373 migrants from the sea and recovered 26 bodies. The rest are missing, feared drowned.
The Local reports that police have arrested five suspected traffickers, including two Libyans, two Algerians and a Tunisian man. All are aged between 21 and 24 years old.
“The criminals each took on a clear role,” police said, with one acting as leader and the others in charge of maintaining order, often through brutal means.
The passengers claimed to have $1,200 and $1,800 for the trip from north Africa to Europe – those who wanted a life jacket had to pay an extra fee of up to $50.
Witnesses said that everyone had been packed into the hull and that “they could be closed in and compacted in the hull for three days, having paid half price for the crossing”. Police added that when the water began to seep in “the migrants, on the traffickers’ orders, tried desperately to get rid of it.”
They then “did everything to try and get out to save themselves, but instead were attacked with knifes and sticks, pushed back into the hull.” The traffickers then “sealed the hatch, with the weight of the rest of the migrants, positioned on purpose to stop it reopening”.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said: “Those who could not get out in time would have drowned almost immediately.”
More than 2,000 migrants have died so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean.