Between 700-900 migrants may have died at sea this week

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700 Migrants Feared Dead After Three Shipwrecks In Mediterranean Sea

ROME, May 29 (Reuters) - At least 700 migrants may have died at sea this past week in the busiest week of migrant crossings from Libya towards Italy this year, Medecins San Frontieres and the UN Refugee agency said on Sunday.

About 14,000 have been rescued since Monday amid calm seas, and there have been at least three confirmed instances of boats sinking. But the number of dead can only be estimated based on survivor testimony, which is still being collected.

"We will never know exact numbers," Medecins San Frontieres said in a Tweet after estimating that 900 had died during the week. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said more than 700 had drowned.

Migrants interviewed on Saturday in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo told of a large fishing boat that overturned and sank on Thursday with many women and children on board.

Initial estimates were that 400 people died, but the UN Refugee agency said on Sunday there may have been about 670 passengers on board.

Photos of the migrant crisis:

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Reuters 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, migrant crisis
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Between 700-900 migrants may have died at sea this week
A Syrian refugee holds onto his children as he struggles to walk off a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesbos September 24, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Syrian refugee kisses his daughter as he walks through a rainstorm towards Greece's border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Syrian migrants cross under a fence into Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, August 27, 2015. Bernadette Szabo: Rail tracks, unguarded, line the border with Serbia. Most refugees used the tracks, a few miles long, as a highway into Hungary. I arrived at the border every day at 6.00 AM. The crossing was the only spot still not blocked. A triple coil of razor wire was up everywhere else as Hungary prepared to fence off the border. The rail crossing was easy enough but many migrants chose to jump the fence to avoid the police waiting a few hundred metres inside. The razors were not too sharp to handle with heavy gloves. Dozens of other photographers and I paced the fence, some way from the rail tracks. Among the shrubs we could make out the contours of migrants waiting for the right moment. Everyone watched everyone else. We watched the refugees, who watched the police, who watched us. It was like an elaborate board game. It was more than just waiting. The people on the other side of the fence filled the atmosphere with strange, unspeakable tension. This family decided they had waited enough. They started for the fence. Aware of the stakes, they lifted the razor wire, looked around, then went for it. Once across they vanished in the woods. I never saw them again. Photographing the migrants was the ultimate test of staying out of the story: observe keenly, wait, shoot. Donât cut the wire, donât invite the refugees in, donât alert the police. There was little human contact with the thousands of refugees scaling the fence. You learnt nothing about them. They came and went. But those who walked along the tracks stopped and talked. They accepted water or the odd chocolate bar. They even shared stories - stories that will haunt me forever. There is no way to shake the emotional impact. Once I put the camera down and had time to reflect it all came back. You have to let the story wash through you to remain human. REUTERS/Bernardett Szabo
Hungarian policemen stand by the family of migrants as they wanted to run away at the railway station in the town of Bicske, Hungary, September 3, 2015. A camp for refugees and asylum seekers is located in Bicske. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Afghan migrant jumps off an overcrowded raft onto a beach at the Greek island of Lesbos October 19, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Syrian refugee holding a baby in a life tube swims towards the shore after their dinghy deflated some 100m away before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, September 13, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Amoun, 70, a blind Palestinian refugee who lived in the town of Aleppo in Syria, rests on a beach moments after arriving along with another forty on a dinghy in the Greek island of Kos, crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, August 12, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Afghan migrant is seen inside a bus following his arrival by the Eleftherios Venizelos passenger ferry with over 2,500 migrants and refugees from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, October 8, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Migrants make their way on foot on the outskirts of Brezice, Slovenia October 20, 2015. Slovenia's interior ministry raised the possibility on Tuesday of setting up physical barriers along its southeastern border if the numbers of migrants increased. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Syrian refugee tries to catch his breath as he stands in a crowded line to get registered in the national stadium of the Greek island of Kos, August 12, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Macedonian police officer raises his baton towards migrants to stop them from entering into Macedonia at Greece's border near the village of Idomeni, Greece, August 22, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian policemen to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A policeman tries to stop a migrant from boarding a train through a window at Gevgelija train station in Macedonia, close to the border with Greece, August 15, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Syrian refugees walk through the mud as they cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Immigrants are escorted by German police to a registration centre, after crossing the Austrian-German border in Wegscheid near Passau, Germany, October 20, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Michael Dalder TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An overcrowded inflatable boat with Syrian refugees drifts in the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece after its motor broke down off the Greek island of Kos, August 11, 2015. Reuters and The New York Times shared the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for images of the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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According to testimony collected by EU border agency Frontex, when the motorless fishing boat capsized, 25 swam to the boat that had been towing it, while 79-89 others were saved by rescuers and 15 bodies were recovered. This meant more than 550 died, the UNHCR said.

The migrants -- fleeing wars, oppression and poverty -- often do not know how to swim and do not have life jackets. They pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to make the crossing from Libya to Italy, by far the most dangerous border passage for migrants in the world.

This week's arrivals included Eritreans, Sudanese, Nigerians and many other West Africans, humanitarian groups say. Despite the surge this week, as of Friday 40,660 arrivals had been counted, 2 percent fewer than the same period of last year, the Interior Ministry said.

Most of the boats this week appear to have left from Sabratha, Libya, where many said smugglers had beaten them and women said they had been raped, said MSF, which has three rescue boats in the area.

The migrants are piled onto flimsy rubber boats or old fishing vessels which can toss their occupants into the sea in a matter of seconds.

About 100 are thought to have either been trapped in the hull or to have drowned after tumbling into the sea on Wednesday.

On Friday, the Italian Navy ship Vega collected 45 bodies and rescued 135 from a "half submerged" rubber boat. It is not yet known exactly how many were on board, but the rubber boats normally carry about 300.

"Some were more shaken than others because they had lost their loved ones," Raffaele Martino, commander of the Vega, told Reuters on Sunday in the southern port of Reggio Calabria, where the Vega docked with the survivors and corpses, including those of three infants.

"It's time that Europe had the courage to offer safe alternatives that allow these people to come without putting their own lives or those of their children in danger," Tommaso Fabri of MSF Italy said.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Additional reporting by Reuters TV in Reggio Calabria; Editing by Richard Balmforth)


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