Sunday, April 19, 2015

Hundreds of Migrants Believed Dead in Shipwreck Off Libya

Boat capsizes after passengers rush to one side
ROME—As many as 700 migrants are believed to have died in a shipwreck off the Libyan coast, piling pressure on European leaders who have been stymied in their search for a solution to the migration problem by rising anti-immigration sentiment, chaos in Libya and the crush of asylum seekers in some countries.

According to the Italian Coast Guard, a 20-meter-long fishing boat, which was heavily overcrowded and had departed from Libya, launched a distress call during the night Saturday. The Italians sent a Portuguese mercantile vessel, the King Jacob, to help the boat, but when the migrants, all sub-Saharan Africans, saw the ship approach, they rushed to one side, capsizing the boat, said the coast guard.

Passengers aboard the boat told aid workers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that it originally held more than 700 people, but only 28 had been rescued by Sunday afternoon. The Italian Coast Guard has dispatched 17 ships, including Maltese vessels, Italian fishing boats and other private vessels, to the area to search for other survivors. They have recovered 28 bodies so far.
Antonino Iraso, an officer with the Italian tax police, whose ships are involved in the search-and-rescue operation, told Italian television the teams have sighted an oil slick, floating life jackets and fragments of wood in the area where the boat sank.

“They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war,” said Pope Francis during his weekly Sunday address. He appealed to the international community “to react decisively and quickly to see to it that such tragedies are not repeated.”

The route from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa has become the deadliest migrant route in the world. If the deaths are confirmed, it would mark one of the largest losses of migrants’ lives and bring to about 1,600 the number of people who have died since the start of the year in attempting to make the passage. For all of 2014, nearly 3,200 died on that route, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration.

French President François Hollande called the weekend’s disaster “the worst catastrophe in recent years in the Mediterranean.”
Last year, about 170,000 African and Middle Eastern migrants arrived in Italy using that passage, with a total of nearly 300,000 arrivals in all since the start of 2011.
Conflicts and poverty in African and the Middle East have driven people to attempt the dangerous journey in ever greater numbers. Moreover, the dissolution of law and order in Libya has allowed people smugglers to work with impunity. In recent months, the situation has worsened still, as many foreigners who had found work in Libya before the conflict erupted there are now trying to flee the country. As a result, aid organizations and border control officials expect the sea arrivals this year to easily surpass last year’s numbers.

The deaths underscore the inability of the EU to find a robust and united response so far to the migration phenomenon, with deep differences on core issues such as accepting asylum seekers and finding a solution to the deterioration of Libya.

On Sunday, the European Commission issued a statement saying it was “deeply chagrined” by the news and called for “bold action.” It will consult with member states and aid groups as part of a plan to produce a new migration strategy in mid-May.
That plan may include a beefed-up budget for border control. In late 2013, after more than 300 African migrants died in a shipwreck, the Italian government established a sweeping search-and-rescue program. But political pressure forced Rome to scrap the program late last year, and it was replaced with far more limited EU patrols. That has left the Italian Coast Guard and mercantile vessels struggling to cope with the huge flow of migrants.

“Europe can do more and Europe must do more,” said European Parliament chief Martin Schulz. “It is a shame and a confession of failure how many countries run away from responsibility.”

But little enthusiasm exists for a strong, EU-supported search-and-rescue program, with leaders in some countries arguing that saving the migrants only encourages more to attempt the journey.

If some stability returned and a national unity government were formed in Libya, the EU could send a security mission that could help guard the ports and stem the people-smuggling trade, say officials. But Italy has struggled to gain support for an international response to help stabilize Libya.