By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The light was fading so quickly that Mohammed Kazkji lost count of the number of people drowning around him.
"I was terrified as it was getting dark and I thought no one would come for us," the 22-year-old student fleeing from Damascus, Syria, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday.
"People were crying and screaming and trying to grab hold of anything to stay afloat," he said, as figures were released to show a record number of 3,072 migrants have drowned so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Kazkji, an engineering student, was traveling with more than 400 migrants from Syria and Palestine on Oct. 11 last year when the trawler carrying them from Libya capsized and sank close to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
He knew how to swim and was eventually rescued, but could only watch in horror as people died around him with an estimated 200 people missing from the shipwreck.
"We all thought we were going to die ... many did," said Kazkji in a telephone interview from Malta where he is struggling to eke out a living with no legal work status.
Figures released by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) this week revealed the death toll in the Mediterranean Sea has risen significantly this year, up from 2,360 in 2013..
The report came almost a year after two shipwrecks off Lampedusa, on Oct. 3 and Oct. 11 last year, in which about 500 people in total died. Lampedusa, which lies just 70 miles (113 km) from the north African coast, has been a stepping stone for migrants trying to reach mainland Europe for two decades.
Amnesty International has called on European Union (EU) countries to respond to the rising number of fatalities in these treacherous crossings and commit greater resources for migrant rescues before many more lives are lost.
FLEEING WARS, POVERTY
Civil war in Syria, forced military conscription in Eritrea, and the breakdown of order in Libya are pushing record numbers of refugees and migrants like Kazkji to try to flee across the Mediterranean to Europe, often in rickety boats.
Smugglers are charging between $2,000 and $4,000 a person for passage, according to the IOM report.
"My father urged me to leave Syria so I would not have to kill or be killed in war, and many people I know dream of going to Europe for the same reason," said Kazkji, who said his ambition was to finish his engineering degree in Europe.
John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia program director of Amnesty, said in a statement that Europe could not "ignore the tragedy unfolding on its doorstep".
"More search and rescue vessels in the central Mediterranean, with the clear mandate of saving lives in the high seas and resources adequate to the task – that's what the EU and its members must urgently provide," he said.
Italy's navy has been patrolling the waters between Africa and Sicily since the deaths last October, saving more than 90,000 lives in the past year, but has called for more help.
Amnesty's report, presented to the European Parliament, urged the EU to change its asylum policy, which puts the onus on border countries like Italy and Malta to take in refugees, and establish safe ways for migrants and refugees to reach Europe.
"Regardless of the dangers and of EU measures to keep them out, refugees and migrants will continue to risk their lives and the lives of their children fleeing their war-torn, rights violating or economically struggling countries of origin," Dalhuisen said.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)