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Alleged Captain of Migrant Boat Disaster Appears in Court as Critics Call EU Leaders' Pledge 'Not Enough'

Alleged captain of a migrant boat crammed with hundreds of migrants faces possible charges of homicide and people-trafficking, while EU leaders announce measures to boost search-and-rescue operations
Photo by Alessandra Tarantino/AP

The alleged captain of a boat carrying hundreds of migrants that capsized off Libya on Sunday has appeared for a preliminary court hearing in Catania, Sicily.

More than 700 migrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean when the boat collided into a merchant ship, leaving just 28 survivors. It is believed that many of the migrants were locked into the hold and lower deck of the boat.

Prosecutors are building up a case against 27-year-old Tunisian Mohammed Ali Malek, asking that he is charged with homicide, people-trafficking, and causing a shipwreck. Malek has denied that he was captain of the vessel. "He says he's a migrant like all the others and he paid his fare to go on the boat," said his lawyer, Massimo Ferrante.


Twenty-five-year-old Syrian Mahmud Bikhit, arrested alongside Malek, has accused him of being in charge. Prosecutors believe that Bikhit was a crew member, an accusation denied by Bikhit as he faces possible charges of being an accomplice to clandestine immigration.

Judges at the hearing will decide whether to file formal charges. According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), more than 35,000 asylum seekers and migrants have arrived by boat in southern Europe in 2015; some 1,600 died trying to make the journey. In 2014, 3,500 lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean.

On Thursday, European Union leaders met in Brussels for an emergency summit, following the publication of the 10-point action plan to tackle the Mediterranean migrant crisis. Earlier that day, funerals were held for 24 unidentified people whose bodies were recovered from the tragedy in Malta.

Related: A teenage survivor of the Mediterranean's worst migrant disaster speaks of his traumatic deal. Read more here. 

In the summit, it was agreed to triple the funding for search-and-rescue operations in light of the Mediterranean boat tragedy to 120 million euros ($130 million). "If it turns out that the funds are not sufficient, we will have to talk about it again," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The increase in funding now reaches the level of funding that was designated for Mare Nostrum, an Italian-led search-and-rescue operation that was axed in October 2014.


In the past, commentators have held that search-and-rescue operations are a "pull factor." Last year, a spokesman from the UK's Home Office said, "Ministers across Europe have expressed concerns that search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean have acted as a pull factor for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue."

"This has led to more deaths as traffickers have exploited the situation using boats that are unfit to make the crossing."

Mare Nostrum's replacement, Triton, run by the border control agency Frontex, has attracted much criticism from human rights organizations. In February 2015, the UNHCR said, "EU's Triton initiative is limited both in mandate and in resources. Europe must step up its capacity to save lives, with a robust search-and-rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean—or thousands more, including many, many Syrians, will perish."

EU leaders also pledged naval ships to the operation, as well as finding ways to capture and destroy smugglers' boats, although there is some uncertainty as to how this would be achieved. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said it would send a Royal Navy ship, the HMS Bulwark, along with three helicopters and two border patrol vessels, although the country would not be accepting more asylum seekers.

Related: 'The European asylum system is dysfunctional': UNHCR speaks to VICE News about the migrant crisis. Read more here.


UN officials and the International Organization for Migration criticized the EU's 10-point action plan, saying that it must "go beyond the present minimalist approach … which focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on its shores."

Human rights organizations have also criticized the EU leaders' pledges to increasing resources to search-and-rescue operations, stating that it is "not enough."

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, "It's not enough to increase EU boats at sea if they remain focused on protecting Europe's borders rather than the people at sea who are dying trying to get there."

Adding to these concerns, Refugee Council Chief Executive Maurice Wren said that the EU leaders failed to secure safe routes to Europe for refugees: "…European governments had the chance to step up to the plate and get serious about saving lives instead of just talking about it. Instead, they've tried to save political face by attempting to deal with this problem at arm's length.

"Patrolling the Mediterranean and smashing the smugglers may sound like the priority, but what will become of those who are fleeing for their lives right now if we aren't prepared to provide them with alternative routes to safety? What's the use of stopping people drowning on our doorstep just to watch them being beheaded, butchered or shot in northern Africa?"