Distress calls have been received from at least two more boats in the Mediterranean carrying migrants, with reports of 20 further fatalities, including children. The Italian coast guard is believed to be asking commercial vessels in the area to respond to the calls as it does not have the resources to do so itself. Meanwhile in Luxembourg, ministers from the EU Member States are meeting to discuss what can be done.
The International Organisation for Migration received a call at its offices in Rome this morning advising it of two further shipwrecks taking place in the Mediterranean, following the sinking of a ship over the weekend which is believed to have caused around 700 fatalities.
“The caller said that there are over 300 people on his boat and it is already sinking, Joel Millman, a spokesman for the IOM Rome office, told Sky News. “He has reported fatalities, 20 at least.”
His colleague Federico Soda added that the coastguard had been contacted but “they do not have the assets to conduct these rescues right now. The weekend incident has tied up a lot of resources. The coast guard will probably try to redirect commercial ships to the area.”
One of the boats is an inflatable life raft. Both are floating near each other off the coast of Libya in international waters.
A third boat carrying migrants has run aground off the Greek island of Rhodes. Video footage shows passengers jumping off the stricken vessel and swimming ashore as the coast guard helps them to safety. A child wearing a life jacket is lifted onto dry land. But a man, woman and baby have all been pulled from the water after drowning.
As bodies continue to wash ashore in Malta from the disaster over the weekend, ministers have begun to convene in Luxembourg to discuss possible responses to the crisis. Foreign ministers were due to meet routinely today to discuss Libya and Yemen; they are now being joined by interior ministers for the member states to address the question of migration by sea specifically.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, the EU’s foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini said there was “no magic solution” to the problem, adding: “We have a political and moral duty to exercise our role. The Mediterranean is our sea and we have to act together as Europeans. The European Union was built and is built around the protection of human rights, human dignity and the life of human people – we need to be consistent in that.”
Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Commissioner Dimintris Avramopoulous presented a 10 point plan to the ministers, gaining the backing of all present. The plan includes a commitment to reinforcing the Triton and Poseidon Joint Operations in the Mediterranean, boosting the project financially and widening it’s geographical remit; a “systematic effort to capture and destroy” smugglers’ vessels; the fingerprinting of all migrants; an EU-wide voluntary pilot project on resettlement; and “a new return programme for rapid return of irregular migrants”.
In a joint statement, Mrs Mogherini and Mr Avramopoulous said “We need to show that same collective European sense of urgency we have consistently shown in reacting in times of crisis. The dire situation in the Mediterranean is not a new nor a passing reality. That is why the Commission will come forward with a comprehensive European Agenda on Migration in May to address the structural problems. The 10 actions we have agreed upon today are the direct, substantial measures we will take to make an immediate difference. All of these actions require our common effort, the European institutions and the 28 Member States. We will convey these proposals to the European Council which will meet on Thursday in an extraordinary session to address the situation in the Mediterranean. This is what Europe taking responsibility is – all of us working together.”
Following calls from a number of leaders for joint talks, European Council President Donald Tusk has confirmed that a leaders’ summit will be held this coming Thursday. In a YouTube video tweeted by Mr Tusk, he said “The situation in the Mediterranean is dramatic. It cannot continue like this; we cannot accept that hundreds of people die when trying to cross the sea to Europe.
“This is why I have decided to call an extra-ordinary European Council this Thursday.
“I do not expect any quick fixes to the root causes of migration, because there are none. Had they existed, we would have used them long ago.”
Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been appealing for help on the matter from EU Member Nations for months, insisting that returning stability to Libya was the solution, not stepping up patrols. Following Sunday’s disaster he said “It is unthinkable that in the face of such a tragedy, there isn’t the feeling of solidarity which Europe has shown in other instances. We ask not to be left alone, not so much when it comes to emergencies at sea, but to stop the trafficking of human beings.”
Back in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has blamed the traffickers for the scenes, calling for stronger action in the Mediterranean and more aid spending in the middle east and Africa to stabilise turbulent countries.
“These are very dark days for Europe,” he said. “It really is horrific, the scenes that we have all witnessed on our television screens, the loss of life, and we should put the blame squarely at the appalling human traffickers who are the ones managing and promoting and selling this trade in human life, this trade in human death, that we now need to do everything we can to try and stop.
“I believe what’s necessary is a comprehensive approach. We have got to deal with the instability in the countries concerned, we have got to go after the human traffickers and criminals that are running this trade.
“We have got to make sure that there is an element of search and rescue, but that can only be one part of this.
“We should use all the resources that we have, including for instance our aid budget, which can play a role in trying to stabilise countries and stop people from travelling.
“In terms of where people are coming from, it’s striking they are coming from all over Africa and other parts of the Middle East.
“But I think the comprehensive approach, using everything that we’ve got, starting with this meeting today in Europe, is what is required, and Britain of course can play a role in helping to deliver all of these decisions.”
Yesterday Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage blamed Mr Cameron himself for destabilising Libya in the first place, telling the BBC “It was the European response that caused this problem in the first place. The fanaticism of Sarkozy and Cameron to bomb Libya. They have completely destabilized Libya, to turn it into a country with much savagery, to turn it into a place where for Christians the place is now virtually impossible. We ought to be honest and say we have directly caused this problem.”