EU ministers are heading into crisis talks under pressure to confront
people-smuggling gangs, with more than 700 people feared dead in what
may be the Mediterranean’s deadliest migrant disaster to date.
Italy’s coastguard said only 28 people survived a shipwreck off war-torn Libya, seen by many as an avoidable tragedy.
testimonies suggest about 700 people had been on board the 20-metre
fishing boat when it keeled over in darkness. A Bangladeshi survivor
taken to hospital by helicopter in Sicily put the numbers at 950,
including about 200 women and 50 children.
EU foreign ministers are set to discuss the disaster at a previously-scheduled meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.
Italian premier Matteo Renzi (right), flanked by Italian Chief of Staff
General Danilo Errico, talked to journalists during a press conference
he held after an emergency strategy session. Photo / AP
EU president Donald Tusk is considering holding a special summit on the crisis, his spokesman said.
states Spain, Greece, Germany and France have urged immediate action,
with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi leading calls for a summit by
the end of the week.
The disaster comes after a week in which two
other migrant shipwrecks left an estimated 450 people dead, with
increasing boatloads coming from Libya as the North African country
falls deeper into chaos.
If the worst fears about Sunday’s
tragedy are confirmed, it would take the death toll since the start of
2015 to more than 1,600.
More than 11,000 other would-be
immigrants have been rescued since the middle of last week and current
trends suggest last year’s total of 170,000 migrants landing in Italy is
likely to be exceeded in 2015.
Rights groups including Amnesty
International are calling for the restoration of an Italian navy
search-and-rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum, suspended at the end
of last year.
Italy had failed to persuade its European partners
to help meet its operating costs of 9 million euros ($12.6 million) a
month, amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally
encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.
Mare Nostrum has been replaced by a much smaller EU-run operation called Triton.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said governments worldwide should show
solidarity and take in more refugees, adding he was “shocked and deeply
saddened” by reports of the latest shipwreck.
The fishing boat
capsized most likely as a result of terrified passengers stampeding to
one side in their desperation to get off, the UNHCR said, after
authorities in Italy and Malta picked up a distress signal around
midnight Saturday (local time), when the boat was still in Libyan
Italian, Maltese and merchant boats scoured the area for survivors but only 24 bodies were recovered.
deadliest incident prior to Sunday occurred off Malta in September
2014. About 500 migrants drowned when traffickers deliberately rammed a
boat in a bid to force the people on board onto another, smaller vessel.