In total, more than 300 people are feared dead after the crowded migrant boats they were traveling in struck trouble in the Mediterranean. The EU's scaling back of border patrols has been blamed for the latest tragedy.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on Wednesday said more than 300 people were feared to have drowned while attempting to cross from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa in up to four small, overcrowded boats during the past few days. The migrants had mainly come from sub-Saharan Africa.
Details of what had happened emerged Wednesday after nine rescued survivors arrived on Lampedusa. Carlotta Sami, a UNHCR spokesperson in Italy, said the youngest of the victims known so far was a 12-year-old boy.
"What's happening now is more than a tragedy - it's a crime," International Organization for Migration (IOM) chief William Lacy Swing said in a statement, adding that people-smuggling networks were acting with virtual impunity.
The IOM, citing survivors' accounts, says smugglers in Libya loaded more than 400 migrants into four inflatable rubber boats on a beach near Tripoli on Saturday and directed them towards Italy with no water or food and despite stormy seas. While on Monday more than 100 were rescued by the Italian, a total of 29 people died from exposure.
The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks lamented the EU's search and rescue capabilities on Twitter.
Italy wound down its navy's Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation (launched following the deaths of hundreds of migrants near Lampedusa in October 2013) after its European Union partners refused to share its running costs of about nine million euros ($10 million) per month. The mission was, in part, replaced by Triton, which is under the authority of Frontex, the EU borders agency.
Triton, which has no specific search and rescue mandate, has a monthly budget about a third of Mare Nostrum's and its patrols are also generally restricted to territorial waters of EU member states. Human rights groups expressed concerns that ending Mare Nostrum would result in more deaths at sea. Pope Francis in November cautioned the EU against turning the Mediterranean into a "big cemetery" and on Wednesday telling pilgrims at St Peter's Square he would again "encourage solidarity so that those in need are rescued."
However, last year opponents to Mare Nostrum pointed out that, in making the journey safer, the mission risked encouraging irregular migration into the EU. More than 100,000 people were rescued in Mare Nostrum missions over 12 months.
"The humanitarian crisis that sparked the need for Mare Nostrum has not gone away," John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International said.
The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, has reacted to criticism by saying more funds were needed to improve the situation.
"Pointing fingers is not going to get us anywhere. Tackling this common challenge has to be a joint effort of the commission and member states working together," commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said in Brussels, adding that national governments and the European Parliament should grant more funds to Frontex. She also called for more cooperation with countries where the migrants come from and transit through to establish legal channels "so that migrants wouldn't have to get in these unseaworthy boats in the first place."
Fleeing conflict, repression and poverty in the Middle East and several African nations, thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing each year in the hope of establishing a better life in Europe.
Migrants in Melilla 'rounded up'
Also on Wednesday, activists and officials reported a camp of about 1,200 mostly sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco, near the Spanish territory of Melilla, had been raided early Tuesday.
"Similar operations will be conducted systematically to clear all the places where migrants who plan to organize irregular immigration attempts are squatting," Morocco's interior ministry said in a statement.
Authorities did not say where the captured migrants were taken, but rights groups reported that they were transported in buses. Thousands of migrants attempt each year to reach the heavily fortified Spanish territories of Melilla and Ceuta on Africa's Mediterranean coast.
se/ (dpa, AFP, Reuters, AP)