European Council President Donald Tusk is considering calling a special summit of EU leaders on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean after a fishing boat capsized overnight off the Libyan coast, killing as many as 700 migrants.
Tusk tweeted that he was talking to EU leaders, the European Commission and its foreign service on “how to alleviate (the) situation” after the lasts tragedy.
After consultation, Tusk’s spokesman said yesterday (19 April), the former Polish prime minister would decide on a possible extraordinary summit.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged European governments to support action to protect migrants in the Mediterranean, following one of the worst migrant boat disasters over the weekend.
“We have said too many times ‘never again’. Now is time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay,” Mogherini said in a statement. “We need to save human lives all together, as all together we need to protect our borders and to fight the trafficking of human beings.”
“It seems we are looking at the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean,” UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said.
Pope Francis urged EU leaders to “act decisively and quickly to stop these tragedies from recurring”.
A Bangladeshi survivor who was helicoptered to hospital in Sicily put the numbers on board at 950. She said 200 women and children and nearly 50 children were among them, according to prosecutors in the city of Catania.
EU foreign ministers will discuss the issue at a meeting in Luxembourg today (20 April), Mogherini said.
28 people were rescued in the incident, which happened just off Libyan waters, south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, Antonino Irato, a senior official from the Italian border police, told television station RaiNews24.
He said 24 bodies had been recovered.
If confirmed, the death toll would bring the total number of dead since the beginning of the year to more than 1,500.
The new deaths fuelled calls for a stronger response from Europe to the increasingly deadly migrant crisis playing out in the Mediterranean. International aid groups and Italian authorities have criticised Europe’s so-called “Triton” border protection operation, which recently replaced a more comprehensive Italian search-and-rescue mission.
“A tragedy is unfolding in the Mediterranean, and if the EU and the world continue to close their eyes, it will be judged in the harshest terms as it was judged in the past when it closed its eyes to genocides when the comfortable did nothing,” Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.
Italian officials said navy and coast guard vessels, as well as merchant ships in the area and a Maltese patrol boat, were involved in the search and rescue operation, which was being coordinated by the Italian coast guard in Rome.
“They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water,” he added.
There was still no decision on where the survivors and the bodies that had been recovered would be taken.
The boat is believed to have capsized when the migrants shifted to one side of the overcrowded vessel as a merchant ship approached.
“The first details came from one of the survivors who spoke English and who said that at least 700 people, if not more, were on board. The boat capsized because people moved to one side when another vessel that they hoped would rescue them approached,” said Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Europe was witnessing “systematic slaughter in the Mediterranean”.
“How can we remain insensible when we’re witnessing entire populations dying at a time when modern means of communications allow us to be aware of everything?” Renzi said at a political event in Mantua.
On his way back to Rome, where he was expected to give a news conference later, Renzi spoke by telephone to French President François Hollande.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said, “We Europeans risk damaging our credibility if we are not able to prevent these tragic situations which are happening every day.”
The leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, Matteo Salvini, who has made migration one of the centrepieces of his political agenda, called for an immediate naval blockade of the coast of Libya.
The lawless state of Libya has left criminal gangs of migrant smugglers a free hand to send a stream of boats carrying desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East.
Around 20,000 migrants have reached the Italian coast this year, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates. That is fewer than in the first four months of last year, but the number of deaths has risen almost nine-fold.
In 2013, Italy’s previous government initiated the search-and-rescue operation “Mare Nostrum” or “Our Sea” after hundreds drowned in an incident off the coast of Lampedusa.
But Italy scaled back the mission after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of €9 million a month amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.
That made way for the European Union’s border control mission, Triton. However Triton, which has a much smaller budget and narrower remit, has been criticised by humanitarian groups and Italy as inadequate to tackle the scale of the problem.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres said: “This disaster confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe. Otherwise people seeking safety will continue to perish at sea.”
Worst tragedy yet
The disaster was the latest in a growing catalogue of mass drownings of migrants attempting to reach Europe on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats run by people smugglers who are able to operate out of Libya with impunity because of the chaos engulfing the north African state.
The deadliest incident prior to Sunday occurred off Malta in September 2014. An estimated 500 migrants drowned in a shipwreck caused by traffickers deliberately ramming the boat in an attempt to force the people on board onto another, smaller vessel.
In October 2013, more than 360 Africans perished when the tiny boat they were crammed onto caught fire within sight of the coast of Lampedusa.
The latest disaster comes after a week in which two other migrant shipwrecks left an estimated 450 people dead.
More than 11,000 other would-be immigrants have been rescued since the middle of last week and current trends suggest last year’s total of 170,000 migrants landing in Italy is likely to be exceeded in 2015.