Ten migrants, including a baby and three women, have died on a particularly harrowing crossing from Tunisia to Italy, the Italian coastguard said on Friday.
The bodies of eight migrants were found on the small fishing boat after the coastguard boarded the vessel overnight and rescued 42 people.
The survivors said a four-month-old baby had slipped from the arms of his dying mother and vanished overboard before the rescue operation was mounted. A man had leapt into the water to try to retrieve the infant, but he drowned, and the two bodies were not recovered, they said.
The boat left Tunisia last weekend, but soon ran into difficulties. The victims are believed to have died of hypothermia.
The Italian coastguard was alerted to the crisis on Thursday by neighbouring Malta, which has control over the area of the central Mediterranean where the packed boat had been spotted.
Charity rescue vessels used to operate in large numbers off the coast of Libya, looking to pick up migrant boats, but the new Italian government has thinned their numbers thanks to a decree which has imposed strict limits on their activities.
“It is unacceptable that a shipwreck in the Maltese search and rescue region has once again claimed victims when it could have been avoided. It is time for these tragedies to stop,” Doctors Without Borders (MSF) wrote on Twitter.
Highlighting the fact that large numbers of migrants are continuing to cross the Mediterranean, even in the absence of rescue ships, the Italian authorities overnight escorted into Lampedusa another three stricken vessels carrying 156 people.
“Yet another night of rescues, flashing lights, ambulances, buses carrying humanity, eyes wide with fear, men saving lives,” Lampedusa Mayor Filippo Mannino wrote on Facebook.
“How much longer must all this go on? How many more corpses must this island receive?,” he added.
Italy is facing a surge in arrivals from North Africa.
Some 4,963 migrants have reached Italy by sea so far this year against 3,035 in the same period in 2022 and 1,039 in 2021, interior ministry data shows.
In 2022, 105,140 boat migrants arrived in Italy against 67,477 the year before and 34,154 in 2020. The United Nations estimates that almost 1,400 migrants died while trying to cross the central Mediterranean in 2022.