European Parliament President Martin Schulz on Wednesday urged EU member countries to find a political solution to prevent future loss of life in the Mediterranean. Up to 400 migrants are feared drowned after a boat traveling from to Europe capsized off the coast of Libya on Monday.
"We cannot react with indifference to the latest tragedy. We must act with urgently and find a comprehensive solution," Schulz said in Brussels.
Meanwhile in Germany, divisions emerged in the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel over whether Europe's most populous nation should accept more refugees. Volker Kauder, parliamentary leader of Merkel's conservatives, told German mass market daily "Bild" that Germany could welcome "significantly more refugees."
"We can and must be able to afford this act of humanity," he said, pointing out that Middle Eastern countries take in proportionally far more refugees than European countries, and that "five million people live with one million refugees" in Kurdish areas.
But Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere later told German broadcaster ZDF that Germany had already accepted more than 100,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq since 2011, compared to some European countries who had taken in a few hundred.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of in that regard," de Maiziere said, adding that Germany shouldn't give places to more refugees just "to assuage the guilty conscience of our European partners."
Violence in Libya and the Middle East has caused the number of people seeking asylum in Europe to rise dramatically in recent years. Many refugees end up in Germany, where authorities are scrambling to house them. The influx has prompted several of Germany's 16 states to demand more federal funds to help them meet the costs of housing asylum seekers.
Kauder told Bild the request was unreasonable because Berlin had already raised payments to cities and states by around one billion euros.
Perilous Mediterranean journey
Greece and Italy are by far the most popular destinations for the refugees, with the journey across the Mediterranean shortest when heading to islands like Lampedusa to the south of mainland Italy.
On Wednesday, Greece's government appealed to the European Union for help with handling undocumented migrants arriving on its shores. It also announced a series of emergency measures aimed to deal with the surge, including creating camps and shelters on the mainland, and giving the necessary documents to Syrian refugees who qualify for asylum.
So far this year, some 31,500 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece, and numbers are expected to pick up given the recent onset of warmer weather.
UN appeals for better EU presence in Med
Italy's coast guard on Wednesday said that no more survivors had been found from the vessel which capsized off Libya's coastline two days ago. Around 144 people who were rescued at the time of the sinking told aid workers there had been up to 550 people on the boat, and that some 400 had drowned.
If the deaths are confirmed, this year's death toll from migrant boat accidents would rise to 900.
Following the tragedy, the UN refugee agency urged Mediterranean countries to expand their search and rescue services at sea. Italy's Mare Nostrum rescue mission in the Mediterranean was scrapped last year and replaced by the EU's much smaller border protection operation, Triton.
"Unfortunately Mare Nostrum was never replaced by an equivalent capacity to rescue people," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said.
The commissioner also issued a plea for EU countries to open safer avenues for entry so that refugees would not have to risk their lives at sea.
nm/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)