As many as 900 people may have died after a ship capsized in the Mediterranean on Sunday. The boat, which sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa — about 70 miles from the Libyan coast — was carrying migrants fleeing the chaos in African and the Middle East. Italy’s Coast Guard is heading up the search-and-rescue effort: Only 28 people have been found alive. However, the authorities believe that hundreds of bodies are trapped inside the ship.
Witnesses and survivors said that the boat tipped over when its occupants rushed to one side in an attempt to catch the attention of an approaching commercial ship. (The Italian authorities had sent the freighter to help the migrants until government rescue crews arrived.)
In the wake of the tragedy, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi called for a meeting of European leaders to discuss the migration crisis, which he blamed on the instability in Libya and human traffickers who profit from it. Fifteen hundred migrants have already died in 2015. (Italy’s Navy and Coast Guard rescued 130,000 migrants from the water last year.) Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat held a press conference after the tragedy happened this weekend. “What happened on Sunday was a game changer. There is a new realization that if Europe doesn’t act as a team, history will judge it very harshly, as it did when it closed its eyes to stories of genocide — horrible stories — not long ago.”
In February, the United Nations released a report estimating that 85 percent of the more than 167,000 migrants rescued at sea last year came from Libya. The civil war in the country — and rising influence of ISIS — have made it difficult to stop migrants from traveling through the country. People from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa arrive in Libya on the way to Europe. Italian officials said on Monday that they believe that there could be a million migrants waiting in Libya for a boat across the Mediterranean.
“We cannot close our eyes again,” said Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, remembering the war in Bosnia. Plenty of other leaders in Europe quickly responded to the deaths. “We will do everything to prevent further victims from perishing in the most agonizing way on our doorstep,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On Thursday, European Union officials will hold a summit on the crisis, and brainstorm how to stop human trafficking across the sea. The response may involve doubling the EU’s naval operation.
The 28 survivors were supposed to be brought back on land by the Italian Coast Guard. The 24 bodies recovered at the wreck were delivered to Malta, where autopsies are being conducted.
While Europe plans how to respond to the crisis, several memorial services have been held. In Vienna, candles were placed in an inflatable raft.
While rescue workers were searching for survivors off the Libyan coast, another boat crashed near Greece. At least 93 people on the boat survived. Three deaths were reported.