CATANIA: European leaders are struggling to find a solution to a desperate surge of Mediterranean migration that appears to have claimed more than 1,500 lives so far this year, as poverty and war drive people to risk their lives on rickety, overloaded boats.
Any likely answer, however, could be years in the making.
“The main issue here is to build together a common sense of European responsibility on what is happening in the Mediterranean,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief, told reporters in Luxembourg on Monday. “There is no easy solution, no magic solution.”
Italian authorities announced late Monday that the captain and a crew member of the migrant-smuggling boat, who were among 28 survivors pulled from the Mediterranean Sea, had been arrested on human-trafficking charges.
Even as Europeans absorbed the sobering news, more boats filled with migrants sent distress calls from the Mediterranean on Monday, and authorities said the Italian navy had picked up another 440 migrants from four boats, while Italian police picked up 93 migrants at sea.
Some observers suggested the shocking death toll could result in political action that fundamentally alters Europe’s treatment of the problem.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the disaster and a shipwreck a week earlier that cost an estimated 400 lives were “urgent reminders of the critical need for a robust search-and-rescue capacity in the Mediterranean.”
The European Union has come in for criticism for replacing a large Italian search-and-rescue operation with a scaled-down patrol mission.
However, some argue that bolstered search-and-rescue operations act as a magnet for migrants, giving them confidence that they will be saved and taken to Europe should their craft falter.
But others contend that there is no evidence that enhanced rescue efforts provide an incentive for illicit immigration. At any rate, last weekend’s mass deaths appear to have produced a consensus that it is time for Europe to come up with a new strategy on its southern flanks, one likely involving additional search-and-rescue capabilities.
The latest disaster “confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
Still, the officials responsible for helping the migrants fleeing disaster-wracked homelands are well acquainted with the difficulties of even the wealthiest nations being able to absorb the growing influx.
More than 31,500 have come ashore in Italy and Greece to seek asylum this year, most in the last month as warm spring weather and relatively calm seas have lured the desperate to attempt the perilous crossing to European refuge, the U.N. refugee office reported Monday. In the week before Saturday’s accident, Italian maritime forces and commercial ships rescued about 10,000 migrants attempting the crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration.
With the peak season just beginning, this year could see an increase over the estimated 219,000 migrants and refugees who crossed the Mediterranean last year, according to United Nations’ figures.
Moreover, this year has seen an increase in the most chaotic and dangerous voyages as anarchy reigns in Libya, leaving the streams of refugees easy prey for unscrupulous human traffickers packing vessels beyond capacity in ports with neither migration nor security oversight.