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Boat alerts as EU announces summit

Published 20/04/2015

Survivors of the smuggler's boat that overturned off the coasts of Libya on the deck of an Italian Coast Guard ship. (AP)
Survivors of the smuggler's boat that overturned off the coasts of Libya on the deck of an Italian Coast Guard ship. (AP)

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi says Italian and Maltese ships are responding to two migrant emergencies near the Libyan coast.

Mr Renzi told a joint press conference with Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat that ships from the two countries were responding to distress calls from an inflatable life-raft near the Libyan coast with 100 to 150 on board and to another boat with 300 people on board.

Mr Renzi said the rescue operations, coming after the deadly shipwreck this weekend, are evidence that smugglers' activities are intensifying and that Europe needs to unite to combat the human trafficking in the Mediterranean.

Mr Muscat called the weekend tragedy "a game changer" with the "realisation that if Europe doesn't work together history will judge it very badly".

It comes as it was announced that European Union leaders will hold an emergency summit on Thursday to address the crisis.

Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the summit. He said: "I think what we need is a comprehensive plan that does involve elements of search and rescue but, crucially, we have got to do more to deal with the problems in the countries from which these people are coming."

The head of Frontex, the European border surveillance agency, says the recent tragedies show that the continent must do more to stop economic migration.

Fabrice Leggeri said Europe should help people fleeing political persecution in their countries, but economic migration, he said, is another matter and should be prevented.

Mr Leggeri, whose agency is based in Warsaw, said that European countries should send economic migrants back to their countries of origin by plane so that they can spread the truth that there can be no safe journey.

He said Europe should also counter the smugglers who lure migrants with promises of safe passage to Europe, while they in fact expose them to danger.

Migrants crossing the Mediterranean are fleeing conflict, repression and poverty in countries such as Eritrea, Niger, Syria, Iraq and Somalia.

The United Nations' human rights chief has called on European Union governments to take a new and "less callous" approach to the surge of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, arguing that increasingly harsh efforts to deter migration have been a failure.

Zeid Raad al-Hussein said recent deaths in the Mediterranean were "the result of a continuing failure of governance accompanied by a monumental failure of compassion". He called for the creation of a robust and well-financed European search and rescue effort, and called for the international community to set up an independent inquiry.

Zeid, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in Geneva that Europe is turning its back on some of the world's most vulnerable migrants and risks turning the Mediterranean into "a vast cemetery".

Meanwhile, Italian prosecutor Giovanni Salvi says the smuggler's boat that sank near Libya this weekend had three levels and migrants were locked in the hull and on the second level.

Mr Salvi told a news conference in Catania, Sicily, that "a few hundred were forced into the hull and they were locked in and prevented from coming out". He said hundreds more were "closed in" at the second level, while hundreds more were on the upper deck.

One survivor of the weekend sinking, identified as a 32-year-old Bangladeshi, has put the number of people on board the smugglers' boat at as many as 950, though Salvi said that number should be treated with caution. He said the Coast Guard had estimated 700 people were on board, based on its observations at the scene.

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