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Rising Toll on Migrants Leaves Europe in Crisis; 900 May Be Dead at Sea

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

ROME — European leaders were confronted on Monday with a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, as estimates that as many as 900 migrants may have died off the Libyan coast this weekend prompted calls for a new approach to the surging number of refugees crossing from Africa and the Middle East.

Even as efforts continued to collect the bodies from the sinking off Libya late Saturday and early Sunday — only 28 survivors have been found — Italian rescue ships responded to new distress calls from other vessels. A second migrant ship crashed near the Greek island of Rhodes, underscoring the relentless flow of people fleeing poverty, persecution and war.

European foreign ministers met in Luxembourg to discuss how to respond. Those governments are trying to balance humanitarian responsibilities against budget constraints and widespread public sentiment against immigration. Italy’s representative pushed for Europe to make “major commitments” to confront the crisis, and European heads of government scheduled an emergency session for Thursday.

The disaster also underscored how Libya, reeling from violence and political turmoil, has become a haven for human smuggling rings along the African coastline. In Rome, the prime ministers of Italy and Malta on Monday called for targeted, nonmilitary intervention against Libya’s human traffickers.

This year’s death toll in the Mediterranean Sea is thought to have already surpassed 1,500 victims — a drastic spike from the same period last year. With the arrival of warmer weather, the number of migrants on smuggling boats has risen sharply, with more than 11,000 people being rescued during the first 17 days of April. Migrants also now seem to be coming from a larger geographic area — from Bangladesh and Afghanistan in Asia; Syria and Iraq in the Middle East; and African nations such as Gambia, Somalia, Mali and Eritrea.

“What happened on Sunday was a game changer,” Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta said at a news conference with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy. “There is a new realization that if Europe doesn’t act as a team, history will judge it very harshly, as it did when it closed its eyes to stories of genocide — horrible stories — not long ago.”

Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, expressed dismay at what he characterized as European apathy over the migration crisis. “How many more people will have to drown until we finally act in Europe?” he asked in a statement. “How many times more do we want to express our dismay, only to then move on to our daily routine?”

Italy has been at the forefront of coping with the surge in refugees and has been increasingly insistent that the rest of Europe do more to help. A widely praised Italian-led search-and-rescue program was phased out last fall and replaced by a smaller European-led operation.

An Italian Coast Guard ship was expected to deliver 28 survivors to the Sicilian port city of Catania late on Monday. The ship, the Bruno Gregoretti, had already delivered the 24 bodies recovered at sea to Malta, where health officials have begun conducting autopsies. Italian prosecutors in Catania have begun a criminal inquiry into the sinking, and according to The Associated Press and other news organizations, charged the boat’s captain, a Tunisian, with reckless multiple homicide. Both the captain and a Syrian crew member were charged with “favoring illegal immigration,” The A.P. reported.

Migrants are rescued by Greece's coast guard after their wooden sailboat ran aground near Rhodes on Monday. Credit Argiris Mantikos/Eurokinissi, via Reuters

Giovanni Salvi, the lead prosecutor in Catania, said his team had already debriefed a Bangladeshi survivor who had been taken by helicopter to Sicily on Sunday. The survivor described a three-tiered vessel teeming with migrants from Tunisia, Nigeria, Egypt, Somalia, Zambia and Bangladesh.

“A few hundred people were forced to enter the hold, the lowest level, and locked up so that they would not climb up,” Mr. Salvi said during a televised news conference on Monday. He said the Bangladeshi survivor estimated that 250 women and 50 children were also aboard.

Mr. Salvi said that estimating the death toll should be done with “extreme cautiousness.” He said the Bangladeshi survivor estimated that 950 people had been onboard the vessel, while other survivors told members of the Italian Coast Guard that the figure was closer to 700. He said the vessel sank in deep water and had not yet been precisely located.

 “If these figures are confirmed,” he added, “it is understandable why so few bodies have been recovered. The majority didn’t have the chance to escape and would have sunk with the boat.”

The prosecutor also noted that the ship most likely had begun its journey in Egypt and then made several stops along the African coastline, collecting more migrants before turning toward Italy. He said his office was also investigating the reasons the boat capsized, including reports from a merchant ship that had been diverted for rescue efforts that the boat toppled after migrants rushed to one side.

Meanwhile, Italian ships on Monday responded to two new distress calls in the Mediterranean: one was an inflatable raft with 100 to 150 people near the Libyan coast as well as a separate vessel holding 300 people. Earlier, a distress call had come into the Rome office of the International Organization for Migration, an advocacy group, which alerted the Italian Coast Guard.

Joel Millman, a spokesman for the organization, said the caller suggested that as many as three boats had been in distress. “One of the boats called our office and said a boat was taking on water and that they thought that 20 people were dead,” said Mr. Millman, noting that the account could not yet be confirmed.

At almost the same time in Greece, three people drowned when a small boat carrying migrants crashed into the rocks off the Greek island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea. Greek news media showed video of people flailing in the water, or floating on a piece of the boat’s hull, as rescuers with the Greek Coast Guard pulled them onto the nearby rocks.

It is unclear how many people were aboard the ship. The authorities confirmed that 90 people had been rescued, including 27 who were hospitalized with minor injuries. Some Greek news outlets reported that the number could have been as high as 200. Among the three victims were two adults and a child.

Even as attention has been mostly focused on the large migrant boats pushing toward Italy, Greece has also seen a sharp increase in smuggling boats this year — most of them smaller vessels that have left from the nearby Turkish coasts, often carrying refugees escaping the civil war in Syria.

The question confronting European leaders is whether and how to expand the rescue efforts in the Mediterranean. As the danger rises, and more deaths are being reported, migrants seem determined to reach Europe.

At a small gathering of Nigerian migrants on Monday at a church in Tripoli, Libya, several said they remained determined to make the sea journey to Italy, no matter the dangers. Many of them spoke of the difficulty of life in Nigeria and of making a treacherous desert crossing just to reach Libya. And in Libya, they said they lived at the mercy of lawless militias that often jail African migrants or subject them to extortion.

“I have been hearing the stories that people are dying, but me, I will cross it and I will cross it successfully,” said one migrant, who gave his name as Pious and said he was waiting to save up about $950 to pay a smuggler.

“I know that my Lord is with me. He will cross with me. I have made up my mind.”

Source: The New York Times

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