EU Action Sought After Latest Migrant Deaths – Voice of America
Italian rescuers continued to search early Monday for survivors in what could be the Mediterranean’s deadliest known tragedy, raising pressure anew on the European Union to meet demands for decisive action on the growing crisis.
As many as 700 migrants were feared dead early Monday after their 20-meter-long boat capsized in the Mediterranean, about 70 miles from the Libyan coast and south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, as a large merchant ship approached it.
If the death toll is confirmed, it will bring to more than 1,500 the total number of people who have died so far this year seeking to reach Europe.
Eighteen ships were involved in the rescue effort, but only 28 survivors and 24 bodies had been pulled from the water by nightfall, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said. Rescuers worked into the night to find possible survivors, Reuters reported.
After news of Sunday’s disaster several government leaders called for emergency talks and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said foreign ministers would discuss the immigration crisis at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.
“We have said too many times, never again,” Mogherini said in a statement Sunday. “Now is the time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay.”
After an emergency strategy session Sunday with his top ministers, Renzi said search-and-rescue missions alone are not sufficient enough to save lives.
Renzi called for an international effort to stop human trafficking, and stop migrant boats from leaving Libya. “Let me say that we are doing everything we can to find the traffickers responsible for this deadly crossing,” he said.
European Council President Donald Tusk said he was considering calling a special meeting of EU leaders, a summit that Renzi had called for earlier.
Renzi said late Sunday, “Italy is asking for an extraordinary European Council meeting to be held as soon as possible, because it is unthinkable that, faced with tragedies such as the ones we are experiencing, there is not the same feeling of closeness and solidarity and sharing that Europe has shown in other events.”
Hundreds aboard ship
The Italian Coast Guard said the capsized vessel had capacity for “hundreds” of people and one survivor told prosecutors 950 people were on board. Earlier, authorities said a survivor told them 700 migrants were on board.
Rescue workers said the majority of the missing appeared trapped in the vessel at the bottom of the sea.
The small number of survivors and bodies make more sense if hundreds of people were locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, “surely the boat would have sunk,” General Antonino Iraso, of the Italian Border Police, which has deployed boats in the operation, told The Associated Press.
Iraso said the sea in the area is too deep for divers, suggesting that the final toll may never be known. The sea off Libya runs as deep as 5 kilometers (3 miles) or more.
With Sunday’s tragedy, demands for decisive action were going mainstream, as authorities from France, Spain, Germany and Britain joined calls for a unified response.
French President Francois Hollande said the EU had to do more, telling Canal+ television that rescue-and-disaster prevention efforts needed “more boats, more over flights and a much more intense battle against people trafficking.”
“More EU countries must take responsibility for the refugee situation,” said Sweden’s Minister for Justice and migration Morgan Johansson. He called for an expansion of the EU’s Triton border protection program, the scheme that recently replaced a broader search and rescue mission run by Italy.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told the French news agency AFP: “We Europeans risk damaging our credibility if we are not able to prevent these tragic situations which are happening every day.”
In a televised address, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras urged the European Union to face the crisis head on. “The Mediterranean must stop being a graveyard sea, and southern European countries a storage [for] human souls,” he said.
In his weekly address in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis called on the international community to prevent more migrant disasters.
“They are men and women like us,” the pontiff said. “Brothers pursuing a better life, hungry, persecuted, hurt, exploited, victims of war. They are looking for a better life. They were pursuing happiness. I invite you to pray in silence, all together, for these brothers and sisters.”
Francis also called for much greater international involvement in the burgeoning crisis.
Tens of thousands
So far this year, 35,000 asylum seekers and migrants have reached Europe and more than 900 are known to have died trying.
The swelling exodus had prompted Europe to downsize its seek-and-rescue border protection program – the so-called “Mare Nostrum” – in a bid to deter them. International aid groups strongly criticized the decision.
Meanwhile, in a separate incident Sunday, about 100 Syrian migrants, including 28 children, were rescued by a merchant vessel in the Sicilian Strait while they were trying to cross. The migrants, whose boat originated from Turkey, were delivered to the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo, Italy, early Monday.
Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said migrants, seeking a better life in Europe, are taking a variety of routes to reach their destination.
“This is another rescue operation, and it gives also the picture of how complex are the operations at this stage and how complex and diversified are the routes because this is a ship where only Syrian refugees were onboard. It was a boat coming from Turkey,” Sami said.
Overwhelmed by crisis
Meanwhile, the mayor of Italy’s tiny island of Lampedusa, an arrival point for many of the huge number of migrants who set off in boats from North Africa, said on Sunday that Europe needed to launch a new operation to prevent shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.
Giusi Nicolini said the island, which is closer to Africa than Europe, has been so overwhelmed by the migrant crisis it has no space either to bury the bodies from the latest sinking, or to take in any survivors.
Instead, the 24 bodies recovered from the incident off the coast of Libya were being taken to Malta, while 28 survivors were being transported to Sicily.
A Bangladeshi survivor who was taken to hospital by helicopter in Sicily put the numbers on board at 950, and said 200 women and children and nearly 50 children had been among them, according to prosecutors in the Italian city of Catania, AFP reported.
Nicolini suggested a return of Mare Nostrum, a humanitarian and military operation which started in October 2013 after 360 migrants drowned off Lampedusa, but on a much larger, Europe-wide scale.
The Italian Mare Nostrum was canceled last year because of the cost and because some politicians said it encouraged migrants to depart by raising their hopes of being rescued.
“It was an illusion to think that cutting off Mare Nostrum would prevent people from attempting this dangerous voyage,” said Aydan Ozoguz, the German government’s representative for migration, refugees and integration.
The latest disaster comes after a week in which two other migrant shipwrecks left an estimated 450 people dead.
Analysts said they expect human trafficking in the Mediterranean to worsen in the coming months as warming weather and the promise of European stability and prosperity lure desperate refugees from Africa and beyond.
Material for this report came from AFP and Reuters.