European Union ministers are holding crisis talks in Luxembourg after the latest mass tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea caused at least 700 more deaths in one incident on Sunday, followed by reports of two further disasters on Monday. Activists have labeled the loss of life as avoidable and "man-made."
Sunday's story is familiar and recurring. A boat of migrants escaping war-torn Libya caught sight of a commercial vessel and — apparently in an excited and desperate attempt to catch its attention — caused their own boat to capsize.
At least 700 people were thought to be on board the boat, though this figure could actually be as high as 950. A mere 28 people were rescued while 24 bodies have recovered so far. Those corpses have now arrived in Malta in body bags.
As discussion around the tragedy continued, the Greek coastguard announced more deaths off the island of Rhodes. At least three bodies were recovered — a man, a woman, and a child. Footage posted on local news website Rodiaki appeared to show the rescue mission, during which about 80 people were reportedly rescued.
The International Organization for Migration has also reported receiving a distress call from another sinking ship off the coast of Libya on Monday, according to the BBC. At least 20 had already died, said the caller, while at least 300 migrants remained on board. The caller also said that two more boats may be in need of assistance nearby.
In reaction to the latest deaths, Morgan Johansson, Sweden's minister for Justice and migration, called for an expansion of the EU's Triton operation that replaced Italy's bigger Mare Nostrum rescue mission in 2014. "More EU countries must take responsibility for the refugee situation," Johansson said.
French President Francois Hollande also agreed that the EU had to do more, and specified that he believes "more boats, more over flights and a much more intense battle against people trafficking" are necessary.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said: "A tragedy is unfolding in the Mediterranean, and if the EU and the world continue to close their eyes, it will be judged in the harshest terms as it was judged in the past when it closed its eyes to genocides when the comfortable did nothing."
In November, Pope Francis told a full house at the European Parliament that the Mediterranean was at risk of becoming a "vast cemetery." He reiterated his words this weekend when he called for a "more extensive commitment" from European and international actors. "It's evident that the proportions of the phenomenon require much broader involvement," the pontiff added.
"They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war. They were looking for a better life, they were looking for happiness."
The Italian-funded search-and-rescue mission Mare Nostrum was ended late last year, after saving 100,000 lives. Italy has long called for the rest of Europe to contribute to their efforts. The EU's replacement Triton program currently operates in a much smaller area with only one third of Mare Nostrum's funding.
Last week, Gemma Parkin, a spokesperson for Save the Children, told VICE News: "Usually during the winter months there aren't as many crossings because it's more dangerous, but because of the deteriorating situation in Libya we have seen a lot arriving."
At the same time, Martin Xuereb — former commander of the Maltese Armed Forces and director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) — told VICE News: "What is happening is not unexpected, the writing was on the wall. What we need to do now is react to this crisis in a constructive manner. All entities need to come together and find solutions that first and foremost mitigate loss of life at sea. All should remove politics from search and rescue and put saving lives at sea at the top of the agenda."
Speaking ahead of the talks, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said there was "no easy solution, no magic solution."
She added: "We have a political and moral duty to exercise our role. The Mediterranean is our sea and we have to act together as Europeans. It is also [in] our interest, [in that] of our credibility; the European Union was built and is built around the protection of human rights, human dignity, and the life of human people — we need to be consistent in that."
The UNHCR said on Sunday that in 2014 there were 219,000 crossings and 3,500 deaths, while in 2015 there have been 35,000 crossings so far and an estimated 1,600 deaths.
Some groups involved in the rescue missions have also spoken about the escalating levels of danger on the Mediterranean, where traffickers and others operating on the water are increasingly armed and aggressive.
On Friday, the Italian navy announced that they had recaptured a Sicilian fishing boat after it was seized by armed men about 50 miles northwest of the Libyan port of Misrata. Seven crew members were onboard at the time.
A spokesman for the COSVAP Sicilian fishermen's consortium Francesco Mezzapelle called this an "act of piracy." "We need to evaluate if they are terrorists," he added.
At least 12 seizures of Italian fishing vessels have occurred since 2005, following a claim by Libya that their waters extended beyond 70 miles from land. One of the boats — captured in 2012 — is still held in Benghazi, though the boat's crew was released.
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