Firefighters unload the body of a drowned migrant from a Coast Guard boat in the port of Lampedusa, Sicily, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. Tens of people died when a ship carrying African migrants toward Italy caught fire and sank off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, spilling hundreds of passengers into the sea, officials said Thursday. Many migrants have been rescued, but the boat is believed to have been carrying as many as 500 people. It is one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in recent times and the second one this week off Italy: On Monday, 13 men drowned while trying to reach southern Sicily when their ship ran aground just a few meters (yards) from shore at Scicli. (AP Photo/Nino Randazzo, Health Care Service, HO)
VALLETTA, Malta For the second time in a week, a smugglers' boat overloaded with migrants capsized in the Canal of Sicily on Friday as it made the perilous crossing from Africa to Europe. At least 27 people drowned, but 221 people were rescued in a joint Italian-Maltese operation, officials said.
Helicopters ferried the injured to Lampedusa, the Italian island that is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and the destination of choice for most smugglers' boats leaving Tunisia or Libya. It was off Lampedusa that a migrant ship from Libya capsized Oct. 3 with some 500 people aboard. Only 155 survived.
Friday's capsizing occurred 65 miles (105 kilometers) southeast of Lampedusa, but in waters where Malta has search and rescue responsibilities.
The two shipwrecks were the latest grim reminder of the extreme risks that migrants and asylum-seekers often take in an effort to slip into Europe every year by boat. Facing unrest and persecution in Africa and the Middle East, many of the migrants think the Lampedusa escape route to Europe, which is barely 70 miles (113 kilometers) from northern Africa, is worth the risk.
"They do know that they are risking their lives, but it is a rational decision," said Maurizio Albahari, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. "Because they know for a fact they will be facing death or persecution at home - whatever remains of their home, or assuming there is a home in the first place."
What drives them is the hope that they'll have a better life in Europe for themselves and their children, he said. "It's either perish or go somewhere."
In the latest case, the Italian coast guard said it received a satellite phone call from the boat that it was in distress and was able to locate it based on the satellite coordinates, said coast guard spokesman Marco Di Milla.
A Maltese aircraft was sent up and reported that the boat had capsized and that "numerous" people were in the water. The aircraft dropped a life raft, and a patrol boat soon arrived at the scene, according to a statement from the Maltese armed forces.