Hundreds of migrants are likely dead after a boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa early on Thursday. Many survived the shipwreck, but rescuers have recovered 114 bodies, and hundreds of people are still missing.

Passengers reportedly lit a fire to signal other ships when the motor aboard the vessel failed, but the fire spread, and when passengers fleeing the flames crowded on one side of the boat, it capsized. U.N. officials believe the migrants were Eritreans who sailed from Libya.

Authorities blamed smugglers who take advantage of migrants’ desperation and offer them passage to Europe without providing for their safety:

It was one of the deadliest recent accidents in the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing that thousands of African migrants make every year, seeking a new life in the European Union. Smugglers charge thousands of dollars a head to slip people into Europe aboard overcrowded, barely seaworthy fishing boats, providing no life vests or other safety features.. . .

Libya, from where the migrants left about two days ago, is a frequent departure point for migrants.

“There are lots of Eritreans in detention centers in Libya,” Moscarelli said. “These people are not economic migrants. They are fleeing persecution,” often from their military service.

Hundreds of migrants reach Italy’s shores every day, particularly during the summer when seas are usually calmer. They are processed in centers, screened for asylum and often sent back home. Those who aren’t usually melt into the general public and make their way to northern Europe, where immigrant communities are bigger and better organized.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and Malta in the first six months of the year, almost double the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012.

It’s still a far cry from the tens of thousands who flooded to Italy, especially through Lampedusa, during the Arab Spring exodus of 2011.

The numbers, though, have spiked in recent weeks, particularly with Syrian arrivals.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had recorded 40 deaths in the first half of 2013 for migrants arriving in Italy and Malta, and a total of 500 for all of 2012, based on interviews with survivors. Fortress Europe, an Italian observatory that tracks migrant deaths reported by the media, says about 6,450 people died in the Canal of Sicily between 1994 and 2012.

Associated Press

Lampedusa, 70 miles from the coast of Tunisia, is a popular destination for migrants.