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EU refugee policies come under fire amid Mediterranean migrant disaster

Calls for a rethink of EU refugee policies are growing following the sinking of a refugee boat in the Mediterranean with hundreds on board. German activists are demanding a new and larger sea rescue program.

Politicians and refugee organizations called on Sunday for a change in the European Union's stance toward refugees trying to reach Europe over the Mediterranean amid reports that 700 people may have drowned in a migrant shipwreck off the coast of Libya.

The German Federal Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration, Aydan Özuguz, criticized the bloc's abolition last year of the "Mare Nostrum" sea rescue operation, saying it had been an "illusion" that stopping the program would deter people from undertaking the perilous voyage from Africa to Europe.

The German refugee organization Pro Asyl also urged Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere to drop his opposition to a new, large-scale sea rescue program.

The leader of the opposition Greens, Simone Peters, joined Pro Asyl in calling for a comprehensive European operation.

"Hundreds more deaths in the Mediterranean are a disgrace for Europe and us all," Peters said, saying that the catastrophe carried a "message."

'Human smugglers to blame'

De Maiziere recently argued against any new and larger operation, or a resumption of the "Mare Nostrum" program, saying it would aid those smuggling illegal immigrants.

The Christian Democrat politician said on Sunday that the main focus with regard to saving migrant lives must be on cracking down on such gangs.

Thomas de MaizièrePhoto: Jörg Carstensen/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

De Maiziere opposes a resumption of 'Mare Nostrum'

To do this, the EU needed "not only a common European strategy, but a better coordination of foreign, domestic and development policy in and between the member states as well as with the countries of origin and transit," he said.

Italy's former "Mare Nostrum" operation, which also patrolled international waters in the Mediterranean, was replaced last year by a much smaller - and cheaper - EU border protection mission, "Triton," which is only active within 48 kilometers (30 miles) of the Italian coast.

Growing Mediterranean crisis

The latest refugee disaster, in which a fishing boat packed with migrants capsized on Saturday just off Libyan waters, south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, could bring the total number of people killed while trying to make the crossing this year to 1,500 if the figure of 700 dead is confirmed.

Just 28 refugees were reported to have been rescued so far in an operation involving navy and coast guard vessels, as well as merchant ships in the area and a Maltese patrol boat. The operation was being coordinated by the Italian coast guard in Rome.

The boat is believed to have capsized when the passengers moved to one side of the overcrowded vessel after sighting a merchant ship that they hoped would rescue them.

'Systematic slaughter'

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said that the disaster was part of a "systematic slaughter in the Mediterranean."

"How can we remain insensible when we're witnessing entire populations dying at a time when modern means of communications allow us to be aware of everything?" he said at a political event in Mantua.

The disaster has been described as one of the worst ever to occur amid the current migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. The number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean in the first four months of this year is almost nine times as high as the same period last year.

The political turmoil in Libya created by the ouster of former leader Muammar Gadhafi in 2011 has made the country a haven for criminal gangs of smugglers who send a stream of boats carrying migrants from Africa and the Middle East toward Europe.

The EU is to hold an emergency meeting of ministers to discuss ways of combating the crisis. The European Commission said the meeting would involve foreign and interior ministers from the bloc, but gave no date.

tj/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, epd)

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