The Italian coastguard carried out a rescue operation on Monday night after seeing the boat off the coast of Lampione, an uninhabited island near Lampedusa, officials said on Tuesday.
Three people were dead when the coastguard arrived for the rescue in rough waters, and another four died while being taken to Lampedusa. Other migrants were taken to the island’s hospital to be treated for hypothermia and severe disorientation.
Prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio said his office had opened an investigation into alleged abetting of illegal migration and manslaughter.
Lampedusa Mayor Salvatore Martello confirmed the death toll, and said the migrants on the vessel were mainly from Bangladesh and Egypt.
“Yet another tragedy, yet again we mourn innocent victims,” he told local media. “We continue to play our part amidst countless difficulties, even though the Italian government and Europe seem to have forgotten about Lampedusa and Lampedusani. But we cannot go on alone for much longer.”
Italy, the main gateway to Europe for asylum seekers and other migrants from Africa and the Middle East, has witnessed a huge increase in migrant boats in recent months. The Italian government is struggling to secure an agreement with European Union partners over how to deal with the influx.
As of 25 January, at least 2,050 migrants have reached Italy by boat so far this year, compared to 872 at the same point in 2021, according to government figures.
Most are thought to come from Tunisia, Bangladesh, and Egypt. Not all vessels, however, are being granted permission to dock at ports in Italy or elsewhere in Europe.
Geo Barents, a rescue ship run by Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), has been anchored off the southwest coast of Sicily since early Monday morning after being denied access to Malta twice. On board, 439 exhausted survivors are waiting for a decision from the Italian government, the charity said.
Many of them are suffering from heart conditions, diabetes, respiratory tract infections, mild hypothermia, sea sickness and heart conditions, MSF project manager Anthony Campa told The Independent from onboard the rescue vessel.
“We’ve also been seeing a number of violence-related injuries, both old and recent, that were reported to us as having occurred in Libya,” Mr Campa said. “Psychologically many are presenting symptoms of elevated distress, psychosomatic pain, sleeping issues, traumatic flashbacks.”
Jimmy, a 26-year-old from Senegal on board the Geo Barents, said he had tried to leave Libya on three previous attempts only to be picked up the Libyan coastguards.
“On my third try I was sent to prison, they caught me at sea,” he explained in a video shared by MSF.
Italy has been widely criticised in recent years by activists for its treatment of migrants in its waters and a crackdown on rescue ships.
In October last year, former interior minister Matteo Salvini went on trial in Sicily, accused of closing Italian ports to rescue vessels and forcing exhausted migrants and refugees to wait on a boat for three weeks in grim conditions.
“Regardless of what government is in place MSF will continue to work to avoid the avoidable loss of lives at sea,” said MSF head of mission Juan Matias Gil. “And push so that EU members, including Italy, will play their part and put in place a mechanism dedicated to search and rescue and to protecting the lives of people who are fleeing Libya.”