Up to 700 feared dead after migrant boat sinks off Libya: UNHCR/Pope & Holland urge World Action

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Up to 700 feared dead after migrant boat sinks off Libya: UNHCR
Antonio Denti| Reuters/Apr. 19, 2015 |

PALERMO, Italy: As many as 700 people were feared dead after a fishing boat packed with migrants capsized off the Libyan coast overnight, in what may be one of the worst disasters of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, officials said Sunday. Twenty eight people were rescued in the incident, which happened just off Libyan waters, south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, Antonino Irato, a senior official from the Italian border police, told television station RaiNews24. He said 24 bodies had been recovered.

If confirmed, the death toll would bring the total number of dead since the beginning of the year to more than 1,500. The new deaths fuelled calls for a stronger response from Europe to the increasingly deadly migrant crisis playing out in the Mediterranean. International aid groups and Italian authorities have criticized Europe’s so-called “Triton” border protection operation, which recently replaced a more comprehensive Italian search-and-rescue mission.

“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,” Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said foreign ministers would discuss urgent action on the migrant issue at a meeting in Luxembourg Monday. Italian officials said navy and coast guard vessels, as well as merchant ships in the area and a Maltese patrol boat, were involved in the search and rescue operation, which was being coordinated by the Italian coast guard in Rome.

“They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water,” he added. There was still no decision on where the survivors and the bodies that had been recovered would be taken. The boat is believed to have capsized when the migrants shifted to one side of the overcrowded vessel as a merchant ship approached.

“The first details came from one of the survivors who spoke English and who said that at least 700 people, if not more, were on board. The boat capsized because people moved to one side when another vessel that they hoped would rescue them approached,” said Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Europe was witnessing “systematic slaughter in the Mediterranean.””How can we remain insensible when we’re witnessing entire populations dying at a time when modern means of communications allow us to be aware of everything?” Renzi said at a political event in Mantua. On his way back to Rome, where he was expected to give a news conference later, Renzi spoke by telephone to French President Francois Hollande.

The leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, Matteo Salvini, who has made migration one of the centerpieces of his political agenda, called for a an immediate naval blockade of the coast of Libya. The lawless state of Libya, following the toppling of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has left criminal gangs of migrant smugglers a free hand to send a stream of boats carrying desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Around 20,000 migrants have reached the Italian coast this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates. That is fewer than in the first four months of last year, but the number of deaths has risen almost nine-fold. In 2013, the previous government initiated the search-and-rescue operation “Mare Nostrum” or “Our Sea” after hundreds drowned in an incident off the coast of Lampedusa. The operation was cancelled last year, because of the cost and because some politicians said it encouraged migrants to depart by raising their hopes of being rescued. That made way for the European Union’s border control mission, Triton. However Triton, which has a much smaller budget and narrower remit, has been criticized by humanitarian groups and Italy as inadequate to tackle the scale of the problem.

Pope urges world action to stop more migrant disasters
Reuters/Apr. 19, 2015
VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis, speaking after some 700 migrants were feared dead in the Mediterranean, on Sunday appealed to the international community to take swift and decisive action to avoid more tragedies. “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,” he told tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square for his Sunday noon address. “Faced with such a tragedy, I express my most heartfelt pain and promise to remember the victims and their families in prayer,” he said, departing from his prepared text. “I make a heartfelt appeal to the international community to react decisively and quickly to see to it that such tragedies are not repeated,” he said, before asking the crowd to pray “for these brothers and sisters.” The latest disaster happened when a boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast overnight, in one of the worst disasters seen in the Mediterranean migrant crisis, officials said Sunday.

Hollande says EU ‘must act’ after migrant boat tragedy
Agence France Presse/Apr. 19, 2015/PARIS: French President Francois Hollande called Sunday for a meeting of EU foreign and interior ministers after the feared drowning of some 700 illegal migrants highlighted a growing crisis in the Mediterranean. Hollande, speaking during a wide-ranging interview on French television, said that if the death toll were confirmed “it would be the worst catastrophe in recent years” in the Mediterranean. He said Europe “must act” against the growing catalogue of mass drownings of migrants attempting to reach its shores, and called for closer surveillance of the routes used by smugglers. Hollande called for “more boats, more aerial surveillance and an intensified fight against trafficking.””Because those who put these people on boats are traffickers, terrorists even, because they know these boats are lousy… and put hundreds of people in danger.”The latest boat to capsize went down near the Libyan coast, and the 28 survivors gave testimony indicating there may have been about 700 people on board, the U.N. refugee agency said. The latest disaster comes after a week in which two other shipwrecks left an estimated 450 people dead.