Rescued migrants arrive onboard a coastguard vessel at the harbour of Lampedusa
Rescued migrants arrive on board a coastguard vessel at the harbour of Lampedusa (Reuters)

The crews of three fishing boats allegedly turned around and left migrants to drown in waters off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa after their vessel caught fire and sank.

The mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, said that fishing crews turned tail because they could have been charged with breaking immigration laws if they had rescued the migrants and taken them ashore.

Survivors claimed that a fire broke out on board when the refugees set light to objects in an attempt to catch the attention of local fishermen off Lampedusa.

The fishing boats sailed off, however, said Nicolini, "because our country has put on trial fishermen who helped human lives".

Under legislation, which has come under fire from the European Commission, illegal immigrants can be detained by the authorities for up to 18 months while their status is resolved. Those who knowingly house undocumented migrants face up to three years in prison.

"The government must remove the legislation," said Nicolini. He invited the prime minister Enrico Letta "to come to Lampedusa to count the dead and look at the horror in the face".

Coastguard official Floriana Segreto told IBTimes UK that at least 94 people died in the Lampedusa sinking. Local reports said that there were still 200 people unaccounted for.

The boat was believed to have been carrying about 500 people.

Segreto said that 151 people had been rescued from the vessel after it sank off the tiny island.

Those rescued are sub-Saharan migrants, including Somalians, Eritreans and Ghanaians.