Europe accused as 700 migrants feared dead in Med
Countries across Europe, including Britain, were last night accused of "closing their eyes" to the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean amid growing outrage at the failure of European leaders to agree a new search-and-rescue mission.
The United Nations said as many as 700 people may have drowned when a small fishing boat capsized 60 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa late on Saturday. If the death toll is confirmed, it could be the worst single migrant drowning of the current crisis, and mean 1,600 people will have died trying to reach Europe by boat in 2015 alone.
Last night, the EU announced an emergency meeting of foreign and interior ministers to discuss the crisis, but governments including Britain have so far shown no inclination to reinstate proactive search-and-rescue missions. These were halted last October, despite saving an estimated 100,000 lives, amid fears that they were encouraging smugglers and migrants to organise more trips.
"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," said the Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat.
There were calls yesterday to reinstate search-and-rescue operations. Antonio Guterres, head of the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said: "This disaster confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe."
Morgan Johansson, the Swedish Minister for Migration, said: "More EU countries must take responsibility for the refugee situation." He called for an expansion of the EU's Triton border protection programme, which operates only within 30 miles of the Italian coast. Other countries, including Britain, have opposed expanding the search-and-rescue operation.
In a statement, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, pointedly failed to mention restarting the programme, while the Home Office, which has responsibility for Britain's policy at EU level, refused to comment on the tragedy.
Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, said it was unacceptable. "The British Government must immediately reverse its opposition to EU search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, as the EU needs to restart the rescue as soon as possible," she added. But Italy's Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, whose government oversaw the end of the previous, largely successful Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation in October, said the real problem was the "new slavery" of traffickers who organised the trips.
He ruled out a naval blockade of Libya's coast, from which many people-trafficking vessels depart. The Italian Coast Guard said the migrants' 20m vessel was sinking as Portuguese-registered merchant ship, King Jacob, tried a rescue at midnight on Saturday. It picked up 28 passengers before the boat capsized, flinging hundreds into the water.
In Rome, the Coast Guard's command centre said the vessel may have overturned "because its occupants moved to the side closest to the cargo ship", believing they were going to be rescued.