European Union foreign ministers met on Monday under pressure to produce more than words and save desperate migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, as bodies of the deadliest known wreck of its kind were brought ashore in Malta.
The death toll from Sunday's disaster off the coast of Libya was uncertain but likely to be the highest in modern times among migrants trafficked in rickety boats across the Mediterranean. Officials said there had been at least 700 people on board, some reportedly locked in the hold.
The report comes just days after another wreck is believed to have killed around 400 people.
Hundreds of miles to the east, coast guards were struggling to save migrants from another vessel destroyed after running aground off the Greek island of Rhodes.
Greek rescuers said at least three people had died. Television pictures showed survivors clinging to floating debris while rescuers pulled them from the waves.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said three more vessels had sent out distress calls on Monday.
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.
An Italian naval operation in the southern Mediterranean, known as "Mare Nostrum," was canceled last year because of its cost and domestic opposition to sea rescues that could encourage more migration.
It was replaced in November by a far smaller EU mission with a third of the budget, a decision that seems to have made the journey much deadlier for migrants packed into rickety vessels by traffickers who promise a better life in Europe.
"This is a humanitarian emergency that involves us all," the International Organization for Migration's Italy Director Federico Soda said, calling for a mission equivalent to the Italian operation to be relaunched immediately.
As many as 1,500 migrants have already died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, on course to far exceed the 3,200 people the IOM estimates died making the journey last year, given that the summer peak has not yet begun. Fewer than 100 of last year's deaths took place before May.
The IOM says more than 21,000 people have made the journey so far this year, comparable to 26,000 by the end of April last year, but with a death toll so far around 15 times as high.
REALITY HITS US IN THE FACE
"The reputation of Europe is at stake," said Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni. "I have been saying for weeks and months that Europe has to do more, now unfortunately the reality has hit us in the face."
The vessel overturned and sank off the coast of Libya on Sunday when passengers rushed to one side to attract attention from a passing merchant ship. A Bangladeshi survivor told police there had been 950 passengers on board, according to the IOM.
In the Maltese capital Valletta, coast guard officers brought ashore the 24 corpses found so far. Wearing white protective suits, they carried the victims in body bags off the Italian ship Gregoretti and deposited them in hearses as survivors looked on from the deck.
Twenty-eight survivors rescued so far will be taken on the same boat to the Sicilian port of Catania.
In Greece, more than 90 people were rescued from the boat that was wrecked off the coast of Rhodes.
"We have recovered three bodies so far — that of a man, a woman and a child," a coast guard official said.
Europe's politicians face criticism from aid and human rights groups that they have been abandoning those in need of help to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment among the electorates in their home countries.
European foreign ministers held a moment of silence at the start of their meeting in Luxembourg.
However, there are differing views among them about what needs to be done, from ramping up costly search and rescue operations to trying to intervene in lawless Libya, where the vast majority of migrant boats depart.
Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said on Monday the United Nations should mandate a force to intervene directly in Libya to disrupt or attack traffickers and stop the boats from setting off. France called for a bigger search and rescue at sea.
Lawlessness in Libya, where two rival governments are fighting for control, has made it almost impossible to police the criminal gangs that can charge thousands of dollars to bring mainly sub-Saharan Africans to Europe.
Only last week around 400 migrants were reported to have died attempting to reach Italy from Libya when their boat capsized.
Northern European Union countries have so far largely left rescue operations to southern states such as Italy. According to the IOM, Italian coast guards have rescued 10,000 migrants in the Mediterranean in the past few days.
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