European Union ministers headed into crisis talks Monday under pressure to act over people smuggling as Italian and Maltese authorities grappled with the grim aftermath of the Mediterranean’s deadliest migrant disaster.
More than 700 people are feared dead following Sunday’s capsize off Libya of a fishing boat that had been crammed with migrants trying to reach Europe. One survivor has told Italian authorities that there were as many as 950 people on board and that some of them had been locked below deck by the smugglers.
Italian and Maltese navy boats continued to scour waters off Libya as a first group of survivors and 24 corpses arrived in Malta aboard an Italian coast guard vessel.
The Bruno Gregoracci docked at Boiler Wharf with 24 body bags laid out on its deck. They were then carried into waiting hearses for transfer to a morgue.
Survivors on board the ship were to be taken on to Sicily later in the day. Italian authorities say only 28 people survived the disaster, at least one of whom is already in hospital in Sicily.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has vowed that every effort will be made to salvage the capsized boat and ensure those who perished on board are given decent burials.
Refugee and rights bodies have described the disaster as one that could have been avoided and say European governments have to beef up rescue operations and address the underlying causes of the surge in asylum-seekers and migrants trying to reach Europe.
“The world needs to react with the conviction with which it eliminated piracy off the coast of Somalia a few years ago,” said Wiliam Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organization for Migration.
“All of us, especially the EU and world’s powers can no longer sit on the sidelines watching while tragedy unfolds in slow motion.”
Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the EU had to address the chaos in Libya which allows smugglers to operate out of the troubled north African state with impunity. “The name of the game is Libya and the securitisation of Libya,” Muscat said.
“We have what is fast becoming a failed state on our doorsteps and criminal gangs are enjoying a heyday.”
EU foreign ministers were set to discuss the immigration disaster at a previously scheduled meeting in Luxembourg on Monday and will be joined by their interior ministry colleagues.
Italy has demanded an emergency summit of EU leaders be held by the end of the week.
The latest 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 which was suspended at the end of last year.
Italy scaled back the mission after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of nine million euros ($9.7 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.
UN 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.
Governments must not only improve rescue at sea but also “ensure the right to asylum of the growing number of people worldwide fleeing war who need refuge and safe haven”, Ban added.
The fishing boat capsized most likely as a result of terrified passengers stampeding to one side in their desperation to get off after coastal authorities in Italy and Malta picked up a distress signal around midnight (2200 GMT) on Saturday, when it was still in Libyan waters.
The deadliest incident prior to Sunday occurred off Malta in September 2014. An estimated 500 migrants drowned in a shipwreck caused by traffickers deliberately ramming the boat in an attempt to force the people on board onto another, smaller vessel.
In October 2013, more than 360 Africans perished when the tiny boat they were crammed onto caught fire within sight of the coast of Lampedusa in Italy.