EU facing immigration crisis as up to 950 die at sea
The EU has come under huge pressure to act after the drowning of up to 950 migrants was described last night as the Mediterranean's greatest ever tragedy.
Europe will be "judged harshly for its inaction", warned Malta's prime minister Joseph Muscat, after the latest sinking of a boat on its way to Italy as desperate immigrants tried to reach Europe from Africa. "They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water," he said.
The smugglers' doomed boat, crammed with hundreds of people, overturned as migrants stampeded towards an approaching rescue boat.
Eighteen ships joined the rescue effort in the waters off Libya, but only 28 survivors and 24 bodies were pulled from the water by nightfall.
Some reports put the toll even higher. One survivor said there were 950 on board.
An injured survivor from Bangladesh told police: "There were 40 to 50 children and around 200 women [on board]. When we sailed, the traffickers locked the hatches to prevent people getting out."
"Europe can do more and Europe must do more," said Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament. "It is a shame and a confession of failure how many countries run away from responsibility and how little money we provide for rescue missions."
"How can it be that we daily are witnessing such a tragedy?" asked Italian premier Matteo Renzi last night.
EU foreign ministers will now turn the focus of their regular meeting in Luxembourg today to the scale of the crisis, amid calls from EU leaders, including France, Britain and Spain, to act immediately.
Mr Renzi said he too wants action, but he rejected calls by some Italian lawmakers for a naval blockade.
That would only "wind up helping the smugglers" since military ships would be there to rescue any migrants, and they wouldn't be able to return passengers to chaos and violence in Libya.
Last night, rescuers were "checking who is alive and who is dead" in an area littered with debris from the capsized ship.
Mr Muscat, whose island nation joined the effort, said only 50 survived, and called it the "biggest human tragedy of the last few years".
The 20m vessel may have overturned because migrants rushed to one side of the craft when they saw an approaching Portuguese-flagged container ship, the King Jacob, which was sent to the area by Italy's Coast Guard.
The ship's crew "immediately deployed rescue boats, gangway, nets and life rings," a spokesman for its owner said.
Asked whether migrants rushed to one side as the Portuguese vessel pulled close, Italian Border Police Gen. Antonino Iraso said: "The dynamics aren't clear. But this is not the first time that has happened."
Mr Renzi praised the container ship for quickly responding on what would become its fifth recent rescue operation.
"Since the waters of the Mediterranean Sea are not too cold at the moment, the authorities hope to find more survivors," said International Organisation for Migration spokesman Joel Millman.
United Nations refugee agency spokeswoman Carlotta Sami tweeted that according to one survivor, the boat had set out with 700 migrants aboard. When it overturned, "the people ended up in the water, with the boat on top of them," Ms Sami said.
Many bodies may never be recovered from waters that run as deep as 5km or more.
"There are fears there could be hundreds of dead," Pope Francis said in St Peter's Square, lending his moral authority to the political calls for action by urging "the international community to act decisively and promptly, to prevent similar tragedies from occurring again."
If the death toll is confirmed, it could be the worst single migrant drowning of the current crisis, and would mean 1,600 people will have died attempting to reach Europe by boat in 2015 alone.
Just last Wednesday, another overcrowded migrant boat sank between Libya and Italy, causing up to 400 deaths.
There were calls yesterday, including from Sweden's government, to reinstate search-and-rescue operations.
Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said: "This disaster confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe."
Morgan Johansson, the Swedish Minister for Justice and Migration, said: "More EU countries must take responsibility for the refugee situation." Mr Johansson called for an expansion of the EU's Triton border protection programme, which operates only within 40km of the Italian coast.
Desperate migrants fleeing war, persecution and conflict in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have long tried to reach Europe.
Libya has increasingly become a more frequent point of departure in the years since rival militias, tribal factions and other political forces destabilised the country following the bloody end of Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship.
Malta and Italy are closest to the Libyan coast, and have received the brunt of a migrant tide that carried 219,000 people from Africa to Europe last year. Some 3,500 are known to have died along the way, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Mr Guterres said.
The UNHCR says deaths of migrants crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats are up 50pc this year.
In Italy's parliament, the leaders of foreign affairs and defence commissions pushed for the EU and the UN to prepare a naval blockade of Libya's coast.
Without one, "the traffickers will continue to operate and make money and the wretched will continue to die," said Pier Fernando Casini, the Senate foreign affairs commission president.