ROME - EU leaders head into a summit on the Mediterranean migrant crisis on Thursday under pressure to stem the increasingly deadly flow of refugees trying to reach Europe by sea from Africa.
As survivors laid bare the full horror of last weekend’s catastrophic shipwreck near Libya, the bloc’s leaders were fighting off fresh allegations of callous disregard for African, Asian and Arab lives.
Days after 800 people were feared to have died in the worst disaster of its kind, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday compared his country’s hosting of two million refugees from Syria unfavourably with the EU’s approach of “letting the boats sink and leaving them to their deaths”.
The European leaders are also combatting scepticism about whether there is much they can do.
“The underlying issues are conflict, oppression and poverty. You can’t resolve that with a 10-point plan from Brussels,” said Andrew Geddes, a migration expert at Britain’s University of Sheffield.
The vast majority of those who died at the weekend were locked in the hold or the middle deck of a 20-metre (66-foot) converted fishing boat when it capsized in the early hours of Sunday following a collision with a Portuguese cargo ship responding to its distress signal.
The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean could surge to 500,000 this year, with deaths at sea reaching thousands if no action is taken against the people who traffic them, the head of the UN’s maritime agency warned Wednesday.
Koji Sekimizu, secretary general of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), called for a multinational effort to ensure not only the safety of the migrants but also to target those who smuggle them out for profit despite the risks.
Only 28 survivors and 24 bodies were recovered and the lucky few say there were hundreds on board, spread over three levels.
“Those who had the least money were stuffed into the hold at the bottom, and locked inside,” according to a Bangladeshi teenager identified as Abdirizzak.
When the first collision happened in pitch darkness, scenes of pure terror ensued, he told Italy’s Corriere della Sera. “Everyone was screaming, pushing, punching, elbowing - terrified. From below we could hear those who were locked in shouting ‘Help, Help!’ “I don’t know how but somehow we managed to swim outside just in time before the boat went down.”
Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania said they had asked a judge to charge the boat’s Tunisian captain with illegal confinement as well as culpable homicide, causing a shipwreck and aiding illegal immigration.
The skipper, Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, is alleged to have been drinking and smoking hashish while steering the boat. Crew member and Syrian national Mahmud Bikhit, 25, is also in custody. A judge has until Friday to make a decision on what charges the pair will face.
The exact number of victims may never be known as the wreck sank in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean.
A further 1,106 migrants landed on Italy’s shores Wednesday after being picked up at sea by the coastguard, bringing the total currently housed in reception centres around the country to 70,507, according to the Interior Ministry.
After parliament observed a one-minute silence in memory of Sunday’s disaster, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi urged the EU and the UN to set up operations in African countries south of Libya.
“We have to go to the root (of the problem) and discourage these men and women from leaving their countries,” Renzi said, naming Niger and Sudan as states where the EU could intervene in collaboration with UN agencies.
“Fighting people trafficking means fighting the slave traders of the 21st century. It is not only a question of security and terrorism - it is about human dignity,” Renzi told deputies.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann has said the EU should be looking at building massive refugee camps in North Africa to shelter would-be migrants and refugees.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is reportedly ready to offer the services of a Royal Navy warship which could seek to prevent migrant boats from leaving Libya. But experts question whether such action, modelled on Australia’s approach to its migrant crisis, could be done without UN authorisation.
EU governments have already agreed to double the resources available to a maritime border patrol mission, but that has been attacked as too little, too late by refugee and rights groups.
Sunday’s disaster was the worst in a series of migrant shipwrecks that have claimed more than 1,750 lives this year - 30 times higher than the same period in 2014 - and nearly 5,000 since the start of last year.
If current trends continue, there could be 30,000 deaths at sea this year and Italy will have to process 200,000 migrants landing on its soil, according to projections by aid groups.
Italian officials believe there could be up to one million refugees from Syria, Eritrea and sub-Saharan Africa already in Libya hoping to board boats.
Other ideas up for discussion at the summit on Thursday include trying to capture or destroy people-smuggling boats and a pilot scheme for the fast-track return of migrants to their home countries.