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Italy’s prime minister called for an emergency European summit this week to deal with the deepening migrant crisis off its southern coast after as many as 700 men, women and children were feared to have drowned in a Mediterranean shipwreck. Matteo Renzi said that concerted Eurpean Union action had to be a priority after the latest tragedy 60 miles north of Libya in which a prodigiously overladen vessel capsized late on Saturday, leaving hundreds in the water.
UN and coastguard officials said that survivors spoke of as many as 700 people being in the boat. The number could not be confirmed but a dozen rescue boats continued to comb the waters, looking for survivors. Italian officials said that a Bangladeshi survivor flown to Sicily for treatment told them 950 people were aboard, including hundreds who had been locked in the hold by smugglers.
If the toll is confirmed, it would be the deadliest yet of a succession of tragedies involving desperate migrants, unscrupulous traffickers, inadequate fishing smacks and an even more inadequate EU response. Another 400 people drowned in the same waters last week. In the worst incident before Sunday, an estimated 500 people drowned off the coast of Malta last autumn.
“How can it be that we daily are witnessing a tragedy?” Renzi asked.
The drama unfolded in the watery darkness of a Mediterranean night. Coastguard officials said the vessel probably overturned when the migrants caught sight of a Portuguese ship and all moved to the same side of their boat. Only 28 people were rescued, along with 24 bodies. General Antonino Iraso, of the Italian border police, said those small numbers make more sense if hundreds of people were locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, the boat would “surely” have sunk. “They wanted to be rescued,” said Barbara Molinario, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Rome. “They saw another ship. They were trying to make themselves known to it.”
The toll, if confirmed, would bring the number of Mediterranean drownings this year to more than 1,500 – more than 50 times greater than at the same point in 2014, which was itself a record year.
The sudden surge in deaths has increased pressure on European powers to come up with a proper joined-up strategy to deal with the burgeoning crisis. Last autumn, Mare Nostrum, an Italian search-and-rescue mission that saved more than 100,000 people at sea in 12 months was discontinued following a row over funding and Italian exasperation that it was shouldering the burden of responsibility alone.
It was replaced with a slimmer EU force with a weaker mandate, amid suspicions that some European leaders did not want to fund an operation that might encourage greater numbers of unwanted migrants to risk the deadly crossing. Migrant smugglers have told the Guardian that the presence or absence of rescue forces in the Mediterranean makes no difference to people so desperate to flee that they would rather chance their luck on the ocean than return home.
The stricken vessel sent out a distress signal at around midnight on Saturday. Italian naval and coastguard ships and Maltese vessels were on the scene by the morning. But it was too late. “They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water,” said Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta. The survivors are still aboard an Italian rescue ship but are expected to be brought to Sicily on Monday. Weather conditions are fair and the water not too cold, meaning that more survivors could yet be found.
Two distinct messages emerged from European states. Southern powers including Italy and Spain reiterated their demand that Europe take control to avoid more deaths. Donald Tusk, the EU president, indicated that an emergency political summit could be on the cards after he spoke to EU leaders about “how to alleviate [the] situation”. Federica Mogherini, the Italian EU foreign policy chief, said: “We have said too many times ‘never again’.”
But others, while expressing the same regret and outrage, put the accent on targeting the traffickers who make handsome profits from moving people north. Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, said: “We cannot and we will not tolerate these criminals sacrificing human lives on a large scale out of sheer greed.”
The British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, added: “We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea and prevent their innocent victims from being tricked or forced into making these perilous journeys.”
The European commission issued a statement that acknowledged the need for immediate actions to prevent further loss of life but also tellingly pointed out that “as countries of origin and transit do not take action to prevent these desperate trips, people will continue to put their lives at risk”.
“That is why a large part of the approach we are working on is going to be about working with third countries,” it said, adding that a joint meeting of the foreign and interior ministers would address this. Various radical plans for tackling the crisis have been floated, including putting the onus on north African countries to patrol the seas and process migrants in their own transit camps. Tusk indicated that a summit could be on the cards after he spoke to EU leaders about how to alleviate the situation.
Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have been moving north and west in recent years, driven to desperation by war, persecution and economic stagnation in countries as diverse as Syria and Senegal, Eritrea and Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Huge numbers have funnelled through Libya, where the state has all but collapsed and people traffickers operate with relative impunity. In Misrata, a major Libyan port, coastguards said that the smuggling trips would continue to rise because Libyan officials were woefully under-resourced.
In all of western Libya, the area where the people smugglers operate, coastguards have just three operational boats. Another is broken and four more are in Italy for repairs. Libyans say they have been told they will not be returned until after the conclusion of peace talks between the country’s two rival governments.
“There is a substantial increase this year,” said Captain Tawfik al-Skail, the deputy head of the Misrata coastguard. “And come summer, with the better weather, if there isn’t immediate assistance and help from the EU, then there will be an overwhelming increase.”
Pope Francis, an outspoken advocate for greater European-wide participation in rescue efforts, reiterated his call for action during mass on Sunday after learning of the latest disaster. “They are men and women like us – our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war,” he said from St Peter’s Square.