The migrant ships kept sinking.
First came a battered, blue-decked vessel that flipped over on Wednesday as terrified migrants plunged into the Mediterranean Sea. The next day, a flimsy craft capsized with hundreds of people aboard. And on Friday, still another boat sank into the deceptively placid waters of the Mediterranean.
Three days and three sunken ships are again confronting Europe with the horrors of its refugee crisis, as desperate people trying to reach the continent keep dying at sea. At least 700 people from the three boats are believed to have drowned, the U.N. refugee agency announced Sunday, in one of the deadliest weeks in the Mediterranean in recent memory.
The latest drownings — which would push the death toll for the year to more than 2,000 people — are a reminder of the cruel paradox of the Mediterranean calendar: As summer approaches with blue skies, warm weather and tranquil waters prized by tourists, human trafficking along the North African coastline traditionally kicks into a higher gear.
Taking advantage of calm conditions, smugglers in Libya send out more and more migrants toward Italy, often on unseaworthy vessels. Drowning deaths are inevitable. Last year, more than 3,700 migrants died in the Mediterranean, a figure that could be surpassed this year.
In a statement Sunday, the U.N. Children’s Fund said many of the migrants who drowned in the past week were believed to be unaccompanied adolescents.
The grisly week also underscored the complex problem that the refugee crisis poses for Europe. The Continent’s leaders, facing an anti-immigrant backlash in many countries, have signed a controversial deal with Turkey that has sharply reduced the migrant flow into Greece; last year, roughly 1 million people marched through the Balkans toward Germany.
Yet closing the Greek route has shifted attention to the longer, more dangerous sea route from Libya to Italy. As of Wednesday, roughly 41,000 migrants had been rescued at sea after leaving Libya, nearly the same number from the same period last year, according to the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration.
The potential for a sudden increase in traffic is clear: An additional 4,000 migrants were rescued Thursday alone, the same day that as many as 550 people died on the second migrant boat that sank.
“This was a very intense and exceptional week for the number of fatalities,” said Federico Fossi, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The deaths also point to the lack of solutions to the migrant crisis, which has been exacerbated by the violent chaos in Libya and fueled by the conflict in Syria.
Officials with the refugee agency have been interviewing survivors of the three shipwrecks after they have been delivered to Italian ports. Those interviews were the primary basis for the estimate of 700 deaths, though some migration specialists cautioned that the number might turn out to be higher. Italian authorities have also released grisly video footage taken by rescue ships approaching at least two of the sunken vessels.
What was apparently the deadliest episode occurred Thursday. A boat was towed away from the Libyan coastline by a larger smuggler ship. Survivors described being crammed onto a flimsy vessel filled with 670 people. Once the larger boat dropped the towline, the smaller one capsized.
According to several accounts from news services, a Sudanese captain ordered the cutting of the rope between the two vessels as the latter began to take on water. That captain was arrested after his arrival in Pozzallo, a port town in Sicily.
“And let me tell you — this is quite a new thing,” Fossi said. “We have never seen that before — a boat without an engine tied by a rope to the other one. That shows you the human traffickers are becoming really, really greedy and cynical and merciless. Tying a boat to another one is really dangerous.”
One survivor from Eritrea, 21-year-old Filmon Selomon, said that water started seeping into the second boat after three hours of navigation, and that the migrants tried vainly to get the water out of the sinking boat.
“It was very hard because the water was coming from everywhere. We tried for six hours after which we said it was not possible anymore,” he said.
He jumped into the water and swam to the other boat before the tow line on the navigable boat was cut to prevent it from sinking when the other went down.
According to Italian police, 300 people in the hold went down with the second boat when it sank, while around 200 on the upper deck jumped into the sea.
There were already 100 people missing from the ship that sank Wednesday — a wooden fishing boat that flipped within sight of the Italian navy. On Friday, the navy rescued 135 migrants — and recovered 45 bodies — from a sinking smuggling boat on its way from Libya to Italy.
“This week was a massacre,” said Giovanna Di Benedetto, a spokeswoman in Sicily with Save the Children, the nonprofit humanitarian group.
The week was likely the deadliest in the Mediterranean since April 2015.
Fossi, the U.N. spokesman, warned that the death toll could grow. “And surely many of those victims will be women and children, as usual,” he added.
The vast majority of migrants trying to reach Italy are coming from sub-Saharan African nations like Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria. Last year, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq poured into Europe, mostly traveling through Turkey into Greece.
Now that the Greece route is largely shut down, the question is whether Syrians and Iraqis will try to reach Libya for the dangerous journey to Italy. That was the case in 2014, before smugglers began focusing on Greece.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy has tried for months to force the European Union to focus on Libya. He raised the issue again at the recent meeting of the Group of 7 nations and has proposed holding a G-7 meeting next year in Sicily, which has borne the brunt of Italy’s migrant crisis.
Much attention has been focused on Germany, as it absorbs nearly 1 million refugees who arrived last year. But Italy is also feeling the strain. With the summer migrant season soon to arrive, more than 115,000 migrants are in Italy, an enormous increase from only a few years ago.
The influx has provided fertile ground for politicians favoring tighter border control and decreased European integration. Hungary has built razor wire fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia. Austria narrowly defeated in a presidential race a right-winger vowing to “stop the invasion of Muslims.” Those who favor the British exit from the European Union — the nation votes on the matter next month — say such a move would allow vastly tighter border control.
On Saturday at the Vatican, Pope Francis showed a gathering of children a life jacket used by a Syrian girl who died while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos.
“Migrants are not a danger — they are in danger,” Francis told his young audience.
The Washington Post and The Associated Press contributed to this report.