Hundreds of people are feared to have drowned after a boat carrying up to 700 migrants capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the Italian coastguard.
The vessel, thought to be just 20m (70ft) long, capsized at midnight local time in Libyan waters south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
So far only 28 people have been rescued and 24 bodies retrieved. Italy’s PM said it was a European tragedy and called for an extraordinary EU summit on the migrants issue. Matteo Renzi said he could not verify the number of deaths, but that it would be a “dramatic amount”.
The imperative now of course is not to ponder the long term policy on how to address this issue, it is to rescue any remaining survivors. The Italian coastguard spokesman stated that they were desperately searching for survivors, but soon the search for bodies only.
The migrants reportedly fell overboard when they attempted to attract the attention of a passing Portuguese merchant ship, causing their ship to capsize.
The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said the latest sinking could amount to the largest loss of life during a migrant crossing to Europe. At least another 900 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year.
Italian naval and coastguard ships, the Maltese Navy and cargo vessels, along with three helicopters, are involved in the rescue operation, 130 miles (210km) off the coast of Lampedusa and 17 miles from Libya.
The small island of Lampedusa is reacting to the latest horror in the seas off its coastline. Much of the harbour has emptied. Coastguard, customs and fishing boats all left before dawn to aid the rescue.
Lampedusa is the most southerly point of Italy – nearer Africa than the Italian mainland. Locals say that since January – when the EU took control of patrolling Europe’s maritime borders – between 9,000 and 10,000 migrants have arrived on the island of around 2,000 inhabitants.
Maltese PM Joseph Muscat said rescuers were “literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water”.
The Pope made a dramatic and solemn appearance today:” These are people, men and women just like you and me, risking everything for a better life.”
He is of course correct. Prime Minister Renzi is also correct in calling for a much more decisive policy regarding the migrants landing and dying in the seas around Italy and Malta. The EU has prevaricated on this issue for far too long. It has even cut the budget for Italy’s Mare Nostrum coastguard patrol programme.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi says the trafficking of migrants amounts to a “new slave trade”. He is correct. The boats bringing these desperate people to European shores are mostly unseaworthy, and some are just glorified dinghies. The boat owners charge anything up to €7,000 for the perilous crossing, and are just trading in human misery.
The EU must wake up to this urgent problem, and furnish a coherent policy coupled with funds to its Southern member States, who are simply incapable of handling this problem unaided.
That these migrants do not find this “better life” is a question for tomorrow. Today’s challenge is how to put an end to this recurrent human catastrophe.