The European Union proposed doubling the size of its Mediterranean search and rescue operations on Monday, as the first bodies were brought ashore of as many as 900 people feared killed in the deadliest known shipwreck of migrants trying to reach Europe.
Three other rescue operations were underway to save hundreds more migrants in peril on overloaded vessels making the journey from the north coast of Africa to Europe.
The mass deaths have caused shock in Europe, where a decision to scale back naval operations last year seems to have increased the risks for migrants without reducing their numbers.
“The situation in the Mediterranean is dramatic. It cannot continue like this,” said European Council President Donald Tusk, calling an extraordinary summit of EU leaders for Thursday to plan how to stop human traffickers and boost rescue efforts.
EU ministers held a moment of silence at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday to discuss the crisis. The bloc’s executive, the European Commission, presented a 10-point plan to address the crisis, which would include doubling the size and the funding of “Triton,” an EU naval operation in the Mediterranean.
But even that would leave the operation smaller and less well-funded than an Italian mission abandoned last year due to costs and domestic opposition to sea rescues that could attract even more migrants.
Italy and Malta were working to rescue another two boats carrying an estimated 400 people off the coast of Libya on Monday. Hundreds of kilometers to the east, coast guardsmen were struggling to save scores of migrants from another vessel destroyed after running aground off the Greek island of Rhodes.
The Greek coast guard said at least three people were killed there. Television pictures showed survivors clinging to floating debris while rescuers pulled them from the waves.
Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi compared the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean to the African slave trade of centuries ago. “When we say we are in the presence of slavery, we are not using the word just for effect,” he said.
European officials are struggling to come up with a policy to respond more humanely to an exodus of migrants traveling by sea from Africa and Asia to Europe, without worsening the crisis by encouraging more to leave.
“Search and rescue alone is not a silver bullet,” said German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere. “If you just organize search and rescue, criminals who get the refugees on board will send more boats.”
Nevertheless, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that alongside efforts to fight trafficking, more should be done to save those at sea: “We will do everything to prevent further victims from perishing in the most agonizing way on our doorstep.”
Among those calling for more compassion from Europe were the United Nations human rights chief and Pope Francis.
“This is a humanitarian emergency that involves us all,” the IOM’s Italy Director Federico Soda said, calling for a mission equivalent to the Italian operation to be relaunched immediately.
Human rights group Amnesty International said Thursday’s summit would be a litmus test of Europe’s commitment to save lives in the Mediterranean, calling for a robust rescue mission.
Bernard Ryan, professor of migration law at Leicester University, told Reuters: “It’s a myth to think there’s some other solution”.