By Libya Herald Reporter
Tunis, April 19 2015:
A second, catastrophic migrant tragedy has occurred this weekend involving illegal migrants who set out . . .[restrict]from Libya with 700 feared drowned after an overcrowded boat capsized on Saturday night. The figure, if confirmed, would make it the worst drawing in the Mediterranean in many years,
Italian navy patrols have picked up 26 survivors from the boat, which apparently turned over when the migrants rushed to one side of the vessel after seeing a merchant ship. Some 49 survivors have also been rescued by a Portuguese vessel but dozens of bodies are reported to be floating in the area.
The incident happened 120 miles south of Lampedusa, along the “migrant highway” – a stretch of sea from the Libyan coast to the shores of Malta and Lampedusa favored by migrant smugglers because it is the shortest sea passage between Libya and EU borders.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said he was informed of the tragedy at 1 am on Sunday and a patrol boat was despatched to look for survivors, the Times of Malta reported. “They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water,” Muscat said.
The tragedy comes days after the loss of 400 migrants from a second boat which set out from Libya and sank near Italy – concentrating the minds of European Union foreign ministers due to meet at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels on Monday.
Malta and Italy are lone voices in the EU calling for a joined-up strategy to deal with the wave of migrants arriving from Libya.
Amnesty International has launched a campaign for the EU to do more to rescue the migrants, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has urged Europe to take more refugees from the conflict in Syria, many of whom are among migrants making the dangerous sea crossing.
Before the latest tragedy, more than 900 migrants died making the dangerous crossing so far this year, with calm seas and warm temperatures seeing smugglers dispatching swarms of small boats in recent days.
One reason for the sudden influx is that would-be migrants have been arriving in their tens of thousands in Libya from Africa and the Middle East during the winter months, prevented from making the sea passage until now by rough weather.
Italy has been criticised for suspending Mare Nostrum, its rescue operation mounted last year to patrol the seas off Libya picking up survivors. But Rome said that the EU must share the burden of the operation. Italian naval units have meanwhile been deployed off Libya’s eastern coast on a different mission, to guard against possible Islamic State (IS) units staging sea-borne attacks from ports they occupy at Derna and Sirte.
EU foreign ministers will tomorrow face a series of options; increasing rescue patrols by naval ships and placing those patrols closer to the Libyan coast would save more lives, intercepting the overcrowded boats before they get into trouble. Critics say this policy would also mean EU navies becoming a “ferry service” for migrants seeking passage to Europe, encouraging the trade and playing into the hands of the smugglers.
But this week’s tragedies are forcing the EU to make hard choices: leave migrants to drown in their hundreds, or open the gates to hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty. [/restrict]