As the first bodies were brought ashore on Monday, following a boat-capsizing that killed as many as 700 people over the weekend, government officials in Europe and across the world were urged to dramatically elevate their crisis response in the aftermath of what is being called the worst tragedy in living memory involving refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
The boat in question, which some survivors have said may have been carrying as many as 950 passengers attempting to reach the Europe from North Africa, overturned in Libyan waters approximately 180 kilometers south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Only 50 people were reportedly rescued and a fully accurate death toll may never be known.
According to Reuters:
Europe's politicians face criticism from aid and human rights groups that they have been abandoning those in need of help to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment among the electorates in their home countries.
An Italian search and rescue mission called "Mare Nostrum" was canceled last year due to its cost and domestic political pressure, to be replaced by a smaller-scale EU mission called "Triton", with a smaller budget and narrower remit.
This year more than 1,500 people fleeing war and poverty are estimated to have died in the Mediterranean, packed into rickety boats by human traffickers in a bid to reach a better life in Europe. The deaths are up 15-fold compared with the same period of 2014.
"The reputation of Europe is at stake," said Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni. "I have been saying for weeks and months that Europe has to do more, now unfortunately the reality has hit us in the face."
Responding to Sunday's tragedy, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres expressed shock at the tragedy and was among those raising urgent concerns for European Union officials attending an emergency meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.
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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. Otherwise people seeking safety will continue to perish at sea," UNHCR's Guterres said in a statement. "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. I hope the EU will rise to the occasion, fully assuming a decisive role to prevent future such tragedies."
William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), called on world leaders to "act with conviction" in response to the latest loss of life and what is clearly a systemic crisis.
"All of us, especially the EU and the world’s powers," Swing said, "can no longer sit on the sidelines watching while this tragedy unfolds in slow motion and well over 1,500 have drowned since the beginning of January."
Prior to Sunday's disaster, the IOM and UNHCR jointly estimated that approximately 900 people have died while making the journey from Africa to Europe. If the death toll in the latest incident is confirmed, that number rises to approximately 1,600 people. So far this year, according to the United Nations, more than 36,000 refugees and migrants have arrived by boat in southern Europe. In 2014, around 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, and 3,500 lives were lost.
Amnesty International, which is in final preparations to publish a wide-ranging report on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, says all nations must do more to address the situation.
"How many more people have to die before European governments acknowledge that relying on a patchwork quilt of resources for search-and-rescue operations is not enough?” said Gauri Van Gulik, Deputy Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International. "Thousands of desperate migrants and refugees continue to make the world’s most dangerous sea crossing, and hundreds have already died this year—a massive increase over the same period in 2014."
Van Gulik continued, "Leaders in London, Paris, Berlin and other European capitals must admit that the current strategy isn’t working and throw their full weight behind a robust and concerted humanitarian operation in the Mediterranean, with at least the same resources as the Italian Mare Nostrum operation which was shut down last year."