At least 25 migrants died of hypothermia aboard Italian coast guard vessels after being picked up from an inflatable boat adrift near Libya, the chief health official on the Italian island of Lampedusa said on Monday.
Two patrol boats picked up 105 migrants late on Sunday from the boat drifting in extreme sea conditions, with waves as high as 8 metres (26 feet) and temperatures just a few degrees above zero, the coast guard said in a statement.
The migrants then spent around 18 hours on the decks of the small patrol boats taking them to Lampedusa, buffeted by high winds and spray, and at least 25 died en route of hypothermia, Pietro Bartolo, the chief healthcare official on the island, told Reuters.
“They were all soaking wet in high seas and strong winds,” Bartolo said.
Italy ended its search-and-rescue mission, known as Mare Nostrum, last year. Since then no navy ships capable of keeping large numbers of migrants below deck have patrolled the waters near the Libyan coast.
The patrol boats now sent from Lampedusa are small vessels that cannot accommodate many people below deck. Human rights groups warned that closing the Mare Nostrum mission would endanger lives.
Mare Nostrum was abandoned partly due to public concern over the 114 million euro ($129 million) cost of the mission in its first year. Now the European Union is running a border control operation, called Triton, with fewer ships and a much smaller area of operations.