In what could be the single deadliest incident ever involving migrants crossing the Mediterranean, hundreds are feared dead after a boat carrying at least 700 people capsized early Sunday morning near the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
Just 50 of the reported 700 people aboard the ship had been rescued by mid-Sunday morning, according to a statement issued by the UN's refugee agency. The Italian Coast Guard reported that 28 people had been rescued and another 24 were found dead after the accident.
According to the Associated Press, as many as 950 passengers may have been aboard the 66-foot vessel when it set sail from Libya. The boat reportedly capsized when migrants ran to one side to see a Portuguese container ship that the Italian Coast Guard had sent to help them. The disaster reportedly began just before midnight Saturday as the boat traveled from northern Libya toward Lampedusa, a small island located about halfway between Malta and Tunisia.
Survivors estimated that 200 women and dozens of children were among those aboard the ship when it sank. One survivor reportedly told Italian officials that hundreds of people had been locked below deck by smugglers.
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"This disaster confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe," António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said in a statement. "Otherwise people seeking safety will continue to perish at sea. But it also points to the need for a comprehensive European approach to address the root causes that drive so many people to this tragic end."
Joel Millman, spokesperson for the International Organization of Migration, said searchers initially hoped the warm Mediterranean waters would yield more survivors, but the initial reports are grim. If the hundreds still missing are confirmed dead, it would be the single worst loss of life involving the crash of a vessel carrying migrants to Europe, according to the UNHCR. In October 2013, nearly 600 people died when two different vessels capsized off the coast of Lampedusa.
Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat called the capsized boat the "biggest human tragedy of the last few years, " according to the AP. Muscat, who sent resources to help in the rescue operations, reportedly said rescuers had to check each body floating on the surface of the water to see "who is alive and who is dead."
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There has been a dramatic surge recently in the number of migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean to escape increasing violence and dire economic situations in the Middle East and Africa.
According to the UN, more than 35,000 asylum seekers and migrants have arrived by boat in Europe already in 2015. The journey remains extremely treacherous, with 3,500 deaths recorded last year. If all those currently missing are confirmed dead, it would bring the death toll among those trying to reach Europe since the start of this year to 1,600.
European lawmakers and other officials spoke out about the tragedy Sunday. Pope Francis reportedly prayed for those missing in a silent prayer, and asked that "the international community to act decisively and promptly, to prevent similar tragedies from occurring again," according to the AP.
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi called for a European Union summit to discuss the migrant crisis.
"How can it be that we daily are witnessing a tragedy?" Renzi asked, according to the AP. Renzi and his advisors have blamed smugglers for the continued influx of migrants.
Other European leaders, including Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy have pledged to give more resources to help aid migrants traversing the Mediterranean. Rajoy reportedly told a political rally Sunday that "words won't do anymore," and said "we have to act."
The European Commission released a statement Sunday saying officials were "deeply chagrined" by the deadly wreck, and announced that a meeting would be held to prepare a new "European Migration Strategy."
"What we need is immediate actions to prevent further loss of life as well as a comprehensive approach to managing migration better in all its aspects," the statement said. "The only way to truly change the reality is to address the situation at its roots."
Follow Gillian Mohney on Twitter: @gillianmohney