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Asylum seeker crisis heightens

October 12, 2013

The second migrant tragedy in just over a week in the Strait of Sicily has sharpened calls to allow safe passage for asylum seekers. The most recent accidents have killed at least 400 people.

A rescued man carries his child as he disembarks from an Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) ship at the AFM Maritime Squadron base at Haywharf in Valletta's Grand Harbour October 12, 2013. Dozens of people died on Friday when a boat carrying around 250 migrants capsized between Sicily and Tunisia, in the second such shipwreck this month, the Italian coastguard said. 147 survivors, believed to all be Syrians, arrived in Malta on Saturday morning, according to local media. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi (MALTA - Tags: SOCIETY IMMIGRATION DISASTER MARITIME) MALTA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN MALTA
Image: Reuters

Another Mediterranean migrant disaster

A week of tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea has prompted calls for action from the European Union to do more to prevent asylum seeker deaths.

"I don't know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done," Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in an interview with the BBC.

"The fact is that, as things stand, we are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea," he added. "Until now we have encountered statements, words but little more than that." Muscat vowed to join Italy in lobbying for action at the next European Council meeting.

On Friday a migrant boat sunk about 105 kilometers (65 miles) southeast of the island of Lampedusa. Italian and Maltese rescuers found 34 bodies, and rescued more than 200 survivors. The boat was said to have capsized when passengers tried to attract the attention of a passing Maltese aircraft.

Between Thursday and Friday, the Italian coast guard also intervened to help some 85 migrants stranded on a dinghy south of Lampdesua and intercepted a boat with 183 people on board as it approached the island's port.

On October 3, a vessel carrying some 500 people, mostly Eritreans, sunk within sight of the Lampedusa coast. Only 155 people survived, with the provisional death count raised Saturday to 359, after rescuers found the bodies of 20 more victims.

On Saturday, Italian authorities started transporting coffins out of a Lampedusa airport hangar to take last week's dead to mainland Sicily, where Prime Minister Enrico Letta has promised to give them a state funeral.

Urgent calls for reform

With the Italian coast guard bearing the brunt of rescue operations, politicans and rescue officials have spoken out for more support. "Lampedusa cannot manage: Europe must realize this," Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini told RAI state television.

Francesco Rocca, the president of the Italian Red Cross, called for safe routes for people escaping war and repression: "Urgent measures must be adopted to open humanitarian corridors. There is no time to lose.”

On Saturday, Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano echoed the need to crackdown on smugglers: "We need to stop the merchants of death.”

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 32,000 people have arrived in southern Italy and Malta this year alone, about two-thirds of whom have filed requests for asylum. Most migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa, but this year an increased number have arrived from Syria and Egypt.

One step has been taken by the EU to address the growing problem. On Thursday, the European Parliament approved the Eurosur border surveillance system, which aims to reduce the number of undetected migrants to the EU, including those who arrive by boat.

hc/mkg (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)