The United Nations special rapporteur for migrant rights, Francois Crepeau, said the latest refugee boat disaster off southern Italy was the result of "repressive" policies towards migrants.
Speaking during a UN General Assembly session on migration, the Canadian law professor said the "criminalization of irregular immigration" had played a role in Thursday's sinking of a fishing boat packed mainly with Somalis and Eritreans in the Mediterranean.
"We have to find other ways…repressing irregular migration only does one thing – it entrenches and it empowers the migrant smugglers," Crepeau said, referring to the boat which had originated from the Libyan port of Misrata.
Just after midnight Friday local time, searchers including scuba divers had recovered some 130 bodies, according to the news agency AFP. Scores lay trapped in the sunken 20-meter (66-foot) vessel, some 40 meters under water.
Hundreds remained unaccounted for. Between 450 and 500 people, mostly Eritreans and Somalis, are believed to have been on board. Only 159 were rescued alive, according to local health commissioner Antonio Candela.
As dawn approached on Friday, blue and white flashing lights of coast guard boats could be seen in the dark as rescue workers continued to scan the waters where the boat sank.
Local doctor Pietro Bartolo said the dead included a woman who was six months pregnant and at least four children. "We don't need ambulances, but hearses," Bartolo said earlier.
Visiting an airport hanger where bodies were laid out, Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Premier Angelino Alfano said: "A horrific scene that I never imagined I would see."
"It is a scene that offends the West and Europe," Alfano said.
"Let us hope that the European Union realizes this isn't an Italian problem but a European one, Alfano said earlier.
EU Home Affairs Minister Ceclia Malstrom – in a social network message – called for a redoubling of efforts to "fight smugglers exploiting human despair."
'Spur to action,' says Ban
At the UN, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered his "deep condolences" and said he hoped the tragedy would be a "spur to action" toward creating "more channels for safe and orderly migration."
At the Vatican, Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa in July and railed against the "globalization of indifference" towards the plight of migrants, described the latest disaster as "shameful."
The boat's captain, a Tunisian, was reportedly arrested on people smuggling charges.
Rescuers and local fishermen spoke of chaotic scenes, with "a sea of heads" across the water as desperate refugees waved their arms and screamed.
Alfano said some migrants had set fire to a blanket on board to attract the attention of passing fishing boats when their vessel began taking on water.
Thursday's shipwreck was the second fatal incident involving migrants in Mediterranean waters this week. On Monday, 13 men drowned just offshore while trying to reach Sicily.
ipj/jm (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)