EU leaders have agreed to commit new resources to save lives in the Mediterranean at an emergency summit in Brussels. They have also discussed laying the ground for military action against traffickers.
Before the summit began Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that Ireland would contribute a naval vessel to the search and rescue operation.
He said: "We are prepared to allocate a fully crewed and equipped naval vessel, once the legal clarifications become clear." He also said that the Government had agreed to provide €1m to the International Red Cross for Libya.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "First and foremost now, we have to save lives and take the right measures to do so." Belgium also said it stood ready to commit a navy ship.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has been charged with reviewing the options that would enable military action against the boats used by traffickers.
Officials said diplomatic preparation for military action would probably take a couple of months, thus ruling out the prospect of immediate action against the traffickers.
But the United Nations criticised the European response so far and urged it to do more: "The European Union response needs to go beyond the present minimalist approach... which focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on its shores."
The 28 countries were signing off on more than doubling the finances for the EU's border operation that patrols the Mediterranean and could be called on for emergency rescues. It stands at €2.9m a month. British Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would contribute the navy's flagship, HMS Bulwark, along with three helicopters and two border patrol ships to the EU effort.
"As the country in Europe with the biggest defence budget we can make a real contribution," he said, but added that this would not include accepting a share of the refugees.
German army sources said that Berlin would offer to send the troop supply ship "Berlin" as well as frigates "Karlsruhe" and "Hessen" toward Italy. The ships are participating in an anti-piracy operation at the Horn of Africa and could be in the Mediterranean within five days.
The task ahead is huge, with more than 10,000 migrants plucked from seas between Italy and Libya just over the last week, fleeing poverty and conflict. "Right now it's a question of fixing yesterday's errors," said French President Francois Hollande. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte insisted that Europe should not take the brunt of blame. "We also ask that Africa, the source of the problem, also collectively takes up its responsibility," Rutte said. "Last time I checked Libya was in Africa, not Europe."
Martin Schulz, president of the European parliament, said the EU had not moved in decades on its migrant policies.
"For 20 years, the European Parliament has been calling for a truly European asylum and migration policy," Mr Schulz said. "I could still deliver the same speech, I delivered 20 years ago. Sadly and tragically."
"Europe is declaring war on smugglers," said the EU's top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who was in Malta to attend the funeral of 24 migrants who perished at sea.
So far, that has been a halfhearted skirmish, lamented Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the EU parliament's liberal ALDE group. He complained the EU border operation Frontex had only two helicopters and seven ships in the Mediterranean. "We need a multitude out there," he said. The draft statement also called for "a first voluntary pilot project on resettlement, offering at least 5,000 places to persons qualifying for protection."
That resettlement plan would amount to about half of the number which arrived in just the last week and a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands likely to arrive this year.
Here too a continental rift was already obvious, with countries like Germany, Sweden, France and Italy dealing with a disproportionate number of asylum requests while many eastern and Baltic member states hardly take any. Five of the 28 member states are handling almost 70pc of the migrants coming in.
Mr Cameron, two weeks away from a general election in which immigration is a key issue, said Britain was not in the front line to take more migrants. British vessels would take migrants "to the nearest safe country".