European leaders are struggling to find a solution to a desperate surge of Mediterranean migration that appears to have claimed more than 1,500 lives so far this year, as poverty and war drive people to risk everything on rickety, overloaded boats.
Any answer, however, will likely be a patchwork response that does little to alleviate the root problems that are pushing multitudes to leave their home countries.
“The main issue here is to build together a common sense of European responsibility on what is happening in the Mediterranean,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief, told reporters in Luxembourg on Monday. “There is no easy solution, no magic solution.”
Officials fear as many as 700 people may have perished late Saturday or early Sunday when a boat packed with Europe-bound migrants, mostly from Africa and Asia, capsized in the waters between Italy and Libya.
Italian authorities announced late Monday that the captain and a crew member of the migrant-smuggling boat, who were among 28 survivors pulled from the Mediterranean Sea, had been arrested on human-trafficking charges.
Even as Europeans absorbed the sobering news, more boats filled with migrants sent distress calls from the Mediterranean on Monday, and authorities said the Italian navy had picked up an additional 440 migrants from four boats, while Italian police picked up 93 migrants.
Some observers suggested the shocking death toll could result in political action that fundamentally alters Europe’s treatment of the problem.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the disaster and a shipwreck a week earlier that claimed an estimated 400 lives were “urgent reminders of the critical need for a robust search-and-rescue capacity in the Mediterranean.”
The European Union has come in for criticism for replacing a large Italian search-and-rescue operation with a scaled-down patrol mission.
However, some argue that bolstered search-and-rescue operations act as a magnet for migrants, giving them confidence that they will be saved and taken to Europe should their craft falter.
But others contend that there is no evidence that enhanced rescue efforts provide an incentive for illicit immigration. At any rate, last weekend’s mass deaths appear to have produced a consensus that it is time for Europe to come up with a new strategy on its southern flanks, one that probably involves additional search-and-rescue capabilities.
The latest disaster “confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
Still, the officials responsible for helping the migrants fleeing disaster-racked homelands are well acquainted with the difficulties that even the wealthiest nations face in absorbing the growing influx.
More than 31,500 have come ashore in Italy and Greece to seek asylum this year, most in the last month as warm spring weather and relatively calm seas have lured the desperate to attempt the perilous crossing to European refuge, the U.N. refugee office reported Monday. In the week before Saturday’s accident, Italian maritime forces and commercial ships rescued about 10,000 migrants attempting the crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration.
With the peak season just beginning, this year could see an increase over the estimated 219,000 migrants and refugees who crossed the Mediterranean last year, according to United Nations’ figures.
Moreover, this year has seen an increase in the most chaotic and dangerous voyages as anarchy reigns in Libya, leaving the streams of refugees easy prey for unscrupulous human traffickers packing vessels beyond capacity in ports with neither migration nor security oversight.
Smuggling rings have thrived in Libya in the absence of a functioning government after the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Kadafi. The longtime Libyan strongman had cooperated with Italy in efforts to reduce illicit immigration to Europe.
“The situation in the Mediterranean is dramatic. It cannot continue like this. We cannot accept that hundreds of people die when trying to cross the sea to Europe,” European Union President Donald Tusk said Monday in summoning the bloc’s leaders to a Thursday meeting in Brussels.
What the European Union can do, though, is limited and takes time, said Andrew O. Coggins Jr., a retired Navy commander who teaches management in maritime industries at Pace University in New York.
“The root cause of the crisis is instability back in the home countries and the lack of opportunities for people to work,” Coggins said. “But that’s not going to be fixed anytime soon. All they can do, basically, is a rescue operation where you try to minimize the number drowning.”
Europe could make greater efforts to “take the money out of the whole system” by cracking down on the predominantly European-based migrant smugglers, Coggins said. Such an initiative would have to come from the United Nations, he noted, and even an effective police operation targeting the traffickers would do little to dissuade desperate asylum seekers still bent on getting to a better life.
That quest for a chance to live in peace and earn a decent wage is what drives so many to risk their lives, often to find the door to Europe closed even if they survive the voyage.
Zeid Raad Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, called the latest incidents of mass drowning “sadly predictable.”
He praised Italy’s Mare Nostrum program that last year patrolled the main migrant routes and rescued hundreds from rickety boats at risk of capsizing. But Hussein said this year’s scaled-down version, Operation Triton, was “simply not fit for the purpose” of saving lives in an escalating exodus.
An official with Save the Children said four unaccompanied minors were among the 28 survivors of the weekend shipwreck: 16- and 17-year-olds from Somalia and two 17-year-olds from Bangladesh. “They said they had suffered a terrible ordeal and were so happy to be here,” said the official, who added that the four wanted to stay in Italy.
The official said other survivors claimed that 850 people had been on board, including 100 minors, of which 50 to 60 were unaccompanied and hailed from African countries as well as Bangladesh.
The boat had left Libya on Saturday, meaning it was at sea for one day before sinking, survivors reported.
The two men who were arrested were described by an Italian prosecutor as the vessel’s captain, a Tunisian national, and a crewman, a Syrian national.
The 28 survivors were brought by an Italian coast guard vessel on Monday to the port of Catania, in Sicily. The boat was met at the port by a throng of journalists, along with activists who saluted the survivors as heroes and called on Italian authorities to bolster search-and-rescue operations.
“Stop Fortress Europe,” read a placard held up by one of the people arriving at the port to greet the survivors.
Hundreds on board the smuggling vessel were apparently locked into a pair of lower decks when the 75-foot-long wooden fishing craft — not quite the length of a tennis court — tipped over and sank in deep waters off Libya, authorities said. Smugglers routinely pack migrant ships with “layers” of passengers, experts say, with many consigned to lower decks, where the odds of surviving a shipwreck are greatly reduced.
“Many will not have had a chance to escape and will have gone down with the ship,” Giovanni Salvi, a Sicilian prosecutor investigating the case, told reporters here.
On Monday, officials reported receiving at least two more calls for help from several craft carrying about 300 migrants. Rescue teams were said to be responding.
A grim procession took place Monday in Valletta, the capital of Malta, where Italian coast guard personnel in white protective suits and masks carried the bodies of some victims from last weekend’s shipwreck down a gang plank onto shore. The corpses, encased in white body bags, were placed in waiting vehicles.
Times staff writer McDonnell and special correspondent Kington reported from Catania and Williams from Los Angeles. Staff writer Christine Mai-Duc in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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