Shipwreck bodies brought ashore, EU proposes doubling rescue effort

2015-04-20 21:03
(Francesco Malavolta, AP)

(Francesco Malavolta, AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Catania - The European Union proposed doubling the size of its Mediterranean search and rescue operations on Monday, as the first bodies were brought ashore of some 900 people feared killed in the deadliest shipwreck while trying to reach Europe.

Three other rescue operations were underway on Monday to save hundreds more migrants in peril on overloaded vessels making the journey from the north coast of Africa to Europe.

The mass deaths have caused shock in Europe, where a decision to scale back naval operations last year seems to have increased the risks for migrants without reducing their numbers.

Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said as many as 900 people may have died in Sunday's disaster off the coast of Libya when a large boat capsized. That is the highest death toll in modern times among migrants, who are trafficked in the tens of thousands in rickety vessels across the Mediterranean.

EU ministers held a moment of silence at a meeting to discuss the crisis in Luxembourg. The bloc's executive, the European Commission, presented a 10 point plan to address the crisis, which would include doubling the size and the funding of "Triton", an EU naval operation in the Mediterranean.

But even that would still leave the operation smaller and less well-funded than an Italian mission abandoned last year because of its cost and because of domestic opposition to sea rescues that could attract more migrants.

Italy and Malta were working to rescue another two migrant boats with around 400 people off the coast of Libya on Monday. Hundreds of kilometres to the east, coast guards were struggling to save scores of migrants from another vessel destroyed after running aground off the Greek island of Rhodes.

Greek coast guards said at least three people were killed there. Television pictures showed survivors clinging to floating debris while rescuers pulled them from the waves.

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi compared the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean to the African slave trade of centuries ago.

"When we say we are in the presence of slavery we are not using the word just for effect," he told a news conference.

European officials are struggling to come up with a policy to respond more humanely to an exodus of migrants travelling by sea from Africa and Asia to Europe, without worsening the crisis by encouraging more to leave.

"Search and rescue alone is not a silver bullet," said German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere. "If you just organise search and rescue, criminals who get the refugees on board will send more boats."

Nevertheless, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that alongside efforts to fight trafficking, more should be done to save those at sea: "We will do everything to prevent further victims from perishing in the most agonising way on our doorstep."

The vessel overturned and sank off the coast of Libya on Sunday when passengers rushed to one side to attract attention from a passing merchant ship.

A Bangladeshi survivor told police there had been 950 passengers on board, many of them locked into the hold and lower deck, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Officials cautioned the figure was an informal estimate.

In the Maltese capital Valletta, coast-guard officers brought ashore 24 corpses found so far. Wearing white protective suits, they carried the victims in body bags off the Italian ship Gregoretti and deposited them in hearses as survivors looked on from the deck.

Twenty eight survivors rescued so far were to be taken on the same boat to the Sicilian port of Catania.

In Greece more than 90 people were rescued from the boat wrecked off the coast of Rhodes: "We have recovered three bodies so far - that of a man, a woman and a child," a coast guard official said.

Among those calling for more compassion from Europe were the United Nations human rights chief and Pope Francis.

"This is a humanitarian emergency that involves us all," the IOM's Italy Director Federico Soda said, calling for a mission equivalent to the Italian operation to be relaunched immediately.

Reality hits us in the face

If the toll is confirmed in Sunday's tragedy, as many as 1 800 migrants will have died so far trying to cross the Mediterranean since the start of this year. The IOM estimates around 21 000 made the voyage successfully.

In comparison, by the end of April last year, fewer than 100 had died out of 26 000 who crossed.

The number of migrants normally surges in the summer, meaning far greater numbers are likely to attempt the voyage in coming months. In total last year 174 000 made the journey successfully and around 3 200 died.

The IOM says hundreds of thousands of people could be planning to attempt the crossing from Libya, now in a lawless state with two competing governments at war with each other and incapable of policing people-smuggling gangs.

"The reputation of Europe is at stake," said Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni. "I have been saying for weeks and months that Europe has to do more, now unfortunately the reality has hit us in the face."

There are differing views among European leaders about what needs to be done, from ramping up costly search and rescue operations to trying to intervene in Libya. Renzi said a military operation in Libya was not on the table.

Malta's Muscat said the United Nations should mandate a force to intervene directly in Libya to fight people-traffickers. France called for a bigger search and rescue at sea. Sweden said it would send its own coast guards if the EU did not do more.

Only last week around 400 migrants were reported to have died attempting to reach Italy from Libya when their boat capsized.

Northern European Union countries have so far largely left rescue operations to southern states such as Italy. According to the IOM, Italian coast guards, navy and commercial ships had rescued 10 000 migrants in the Mediterranean in the past few days.

Read more on:    italy

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.