The European Union called an extraordinary meeting of leaders to address the growing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean after a boat carrying hundreds of refugees capsized off the coast of Libya.
As coast guard ships from Italy and Greece went to the aid of further refugees, EU President Donald Tusk called a summit on migration for Thursday in Brussels. He was heeding a request by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Malta’s premier, Joseph Muscat, for their fellow heads of government to share in the burden.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, in calls with Renzi and Muscat, “agreed that the EU needed to respond urgently to address the crisis,” his office said in a statement. Cameron “stressed the need for a comprehensive approach to the crisis, which included action to stabilize migrants’ home countries, and using all the tools at our disposal to go after the human traffickers.”
EU foreign ministers met on Monday in Luxembourg as the continent races to address a humanitarian crisis that critics say the bloc’s governments helped create. Cameron’s words echoed remarks Renzi and Muscat made earlier in the day at a Rome press briefing as they called for targeted missions to destroy the gangs exploiting migrants fleeing conflict in Africa and the Middle East.
“The control of the sea is a very serious issue and can’t be dealt with simply by playing hide-and-seek with the people smugglers, the sea slave-holders,” Renzi said.
At the same time, the Italian premier said that he opposes military intervention in conflict-wracked Libya that is being used by growing numbers of refugees as an embarkation point to reach Europe. Renzi said that a naval blockade off the North African country’s coast is not an option as that would only serve as a “taxi service” for human traffickers to earn more easy money, Renzi said.
More than 35,000 asylum seekers and migrants have already arrived by boat this year, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. If the toll of the latest tragedy is confirmed, about 1,600 people will have died in 2015, the office said in a statement. That compares with 3,500 deaths and 219,000 successful crossings in 2014, it said.
“The main issue here is to build together a common sense of European responsibility on what is happening in the Mediterranean, knowing that there is no easy solution, no magic solution,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said before the meeting in Luxembourg.
The medical humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders and other organizations have repeatedly urged EU nations to undertake large-scale search and rescue activities to avoid more deaths at sea.
“A mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean Sea and European policies are responsible,” Loris De Filippi, president of the Italian branch of Doctors Without Borders, said in an e-mailed statement. “Faced with thousands of desperate people fleeing wars and crises, Europe has closed borders, forcing people in search of protection to risk their lives and die at sea.”
Italian news reports said the boat capsized late Saturday when the passengers hoping to be rescued rushed to one side after spotting a merchant ship.
The UN agency quoted Maltese authorities as saying 700 people were on board when the vessel left the Libyan port of Zuara. A Maltese military official, who asked not to be identified, said the boat capsized about 61 nautical miles (113 kilometers) north of Libya.
Italy has faced a wave of migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East who board unseaworthy vessels in Libya, paying traffickers to take them across the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. Italian politicians have been seeking international support to cope with the influx.
Renzi has repeatedly called on Europe to help stabilize Libya as a pre-condition to seek a solution to the migrant crisis.
“In Libya there are 500,000 thousand to one million Syrians and sub-Saharans waiting to flee to Europe,” senior prosecutor Maurizio Scalia in Palermo told reporters on Monday at a briefing aired by SkyTg24. Those people, who are ready to pay as much as 4,000 euros ($4,300) to be brought to Europe, “amount to an inexhaustible source of income” for the criminal network, Scalia said.
Italy’s coast guard intervened on Monday to help about 450 migrants on boats off the Lybian coast after they sent distress signals, Renzi said at the Rome briefing without elaborating.
In Greece, a wooden sailing boat carrying undocumented immigrants ran aground in the Zephyros coastal area of Rhodes, the Greek coastguard said today in a text message. Three bodies were recovered from the sea of a man, a woman and a child, the coastguard said, adding that 49 people have been rescued so far, of whom 30 have been transferred to hospital.