Valletta and Catania, Reuters—European Union foreign ministers gathered in Luxembourg on Monday under pressure to produce more than words as bodies were brought ashore in Malta among hundreds feared drowned in the latest Mediterranean migrant tragedy.
The death toll from Sunday’s shipwreck off the coast of Libya was uncertain after officials said there had been at least 700 people on board, some reportedly locked in the hold.
Hundreds of miles (kilometers) to the east, another vessel carrying dozens of migrants ran aground off the Greek island of Rhodes on Monday. Greek coast guards said at least three people were killed.
European officials are struggling to come up with a policy that would respond more humanely to an exodus of migrants traveling by sea from Africa and Asia to Europe, without worsening the crisis by encouraging more to leave.
Sunday’s shipwreck off Libya appears to be the deadliest ever involving migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
A Bangladeshi survivor told police there had been 950 passengers onboard, according to Italian media. The vessel sank when passengers rushed to one side to attract attention from a passing merchant ship.
In the Maltese capital Valletta, coastguard officers brought ashore the 24 corpses found so far. Wearing white protective suits, they carried the victims in body-bags off the Italian ship Bruno Gregoretti and deposited them in hearses as survivors looked on from the deck.
Twenty-eight survivors rescued so far will be taken on the same boat to the Sicilian port of Catania.
Europe’s politicians face criticism from aid and human rights groups that they have been abandoning those in need of help to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment among the electorates in their home countries.
An Italian search and rescue mission called “Mare Nostrum” was canceled last year due to its cost and domestic political pressure, to be replaced by a smaller-scale EU mission called “Triton,” with a smaller budget and narrower remit.
This year more than 1,500 people fleeing war and poverty are estimated to have died in the Mediterranean, packed into rickety boats by human traffickers in a bid to reach a better life in Europe. The deaths are up 15-fold compared with the same period of 2014.
“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.”
However, there are differing views among what needs to be done, from ramping up costly search and rescue operations to trying to intervene in lawless Libya, where the vast majority of migrant boats depart.
Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Monday the United Nations should mandate a force to intervene directly in Libya to disrupt or attack people traffickers and stop the boats from setting off.
Lawlessness in Libya, where two rival governments are fighting for control, has made it almost impossible to police the criminal gangs who can charge thousands of dollars to bring mainly sub-Saharan Africans to Europe.
“I believe that the [European] focus should be what should be done in Libya to stop the boats,” said Muscat, who is in Rome on Monday to meet with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
“Unless something is done about Libya, these scenes will be repeating themselves.”
Only last week around 400 migrants were reported to have died attempting to reach Italy from Libya when their boat capsized.
Before Sunday’s disaster, the International Organization for Migration estimated around 20,000 migrants had reached the Italian coast this year, and 900 had died.