Italy and Malta have urged European partners to do more to stop a migrant crisis which the Maltese prime minister says has turned the Mediterranean Sea into a “cemetery” after another boat sank off Sicily, killing dozens more people.
The comments came a day after a boat packed with 250 migrants sank in the Mediterranean Sea, killing 34 people, the latest in a string of boat accidents involving migrants trying to enter Europe for a better life.
Italian and Maltese navy ships recovered the victims’ bodies and rescued 206 migrants.
“I don’t know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done,” Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister, said in an interview with the BBC.
He said he would join Italy in pressing for action at the next European Council.
“The fact is that as things stand, we are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea,” Muscat said.
“Until now we have encountered statements, words but little more than that.”
South of Sicily
The vessel sank about 60 nautical miles south of Sicily, nearly two weeks after another boat carrying a larger number of passengers capsized less than a kilometre from Lampedusa, a tiny island between Sicily and Tunisia, killing at least 300 people.
Arrivals of migrants from North Africa have grown steadily over the past two decades, with many making the journey in summer when the Mediterranean is calmer.
This year the crisis has been exacerbated by instability in Egypt, the civil war in Syria and chaos in Libya, the point of departure for many of the boats.
Enrico Letta, the Italian prime minister, has already pressed for the crisis to be included on the European Council agenda at its October 24-25 meeting, although Europe has long struggled to come up with a comprehensive response to the crisis.
“We cannot continue like this,” Letta told French radio station Europe 1 in an interview on Saturday.
“We’re in a situation where what’s happening in North Africa, Eritrea, Somalia, Syria presents us with a real emergency.”
According to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 32,000 migrants have arrived in southern Italy and Malta so far this year, about two thirds of whom have filed asylum requests.
Italy, deep in recession and pressed by EU budget rules to rein in public spending, has seen its reception facilities on Lampedusa and other parts of Sicily strained to breaking point and has called repeatedly for more help to confront a crisis it says is a European emergency.
“There are too many arrivals and we are not in a condition to manage the disaster of the past few weeks,” Letta said.
He said a common European policy was needed to handle the “explosion” in Libya, where the government has struggled to impose its authority on violent armed groups or stop the gangs that organise the clandestine voyages.
The hundreds of deaths have also set off a fierce political debate in Italy over tough rules intended to combat clandestine immigration which make it an offence to offer assistance to illegal migrant boats.
Cecilia Malstrom, European home affairs commissioner, called this week for Europe’s frontier agency Frontex to be strengthened to be able to deploy search and rescue operations in a zone stretching from Cyprus to Spain.
“In the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy we heard solidarity expressions from all EU countries, but these will remain only empty words if they are not followed by concrete actions,” she said after Friday’s disaster.