Pope Francis has appealed to the international community to take swift and decisive action to avoid more tragedies as the migrant crisis in the southern Mediterranean worsens by the day. In the latest catastrophic episode, as many as 900 migrants appear to have drowned on April 19. Migrants had rushed to one side of the boat as rescuers approached, causing the overloaded vessel to capsize and trapping many below decks.
Pope Francis expressed his “deepest sorrow” over the sinking. “These are men and women like us who seek a better life,” he said on Sunday morning after the Regina Coeli prayer in St. Peter’s Square. “Hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of wars. They were looking for happiness.”
Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency, told a reporter with Agence France-Presse that the disaster could turn out to be “the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean.” Many E.U. officials blame human traffickers for overloading vessels and forcing migrants aboard, sometimes at gunpoint.
The death toll, if confirmed, would raise the tally so far in 2015 to more than 1,600, a figure expected to rise further as summer approaches. More than 400 others died in similar circumstances just the week before, including many women and children.
On April 16 Italian police arrested 15 migrants for allegedly throwing 12 other migrants overboard—all are presumed lost—during what appeared to be an attack by Muslim migrants on Christians on the high seas. Over the Easter weekend last month, the Italian navy and coast guard had rescued up to 1,500 migrants from five different boats after picking up distress calls from satellite phones. Separately, the Icelandic navy rescued over 300 migrants, including 14 children and five pregnant women, off the Libyan coast. The Icelandic vessel formed part of a patrol for the E.U. borders agency Frontex.
Officially, the number of people entering Europe illegally almost tripled in 2014; arrivals in early 2015 are up 43 percent. The dangerous sea-crossing often starts in chaotic Libya as people flee war, poverty or both in the Middle East, Syria and Africa. Most often these vulnerable people, having paid as much as $6,000 for the crossing, attempt the northward Mediterranean passage in boats that are barely seaworthy and always seriously overcrowded. This led to over 3,200 deaths at sea in 2014 and over 200,000 rescues, according to U.N. figures.
E.U. member states are being criticized for refusing to accept and resettle greater numbers of migrants. Italy has been hard pressed to cope with the crisis and, according to some reports, is preparing a joint effort with Tunisian authorities to intercept and repel sea-borne refugees. In what critics are describing as a European “outsourcing” of the crisis, the deal allegedly includes E.U. financing and training of Egyptian and Tunisian naval forces in rescue missions. Meanwhile German officials have proposed setting up refugee transit centers in North Africa to stem the flow of migrants and to prevent so many deaths by drowning. That plan has so far been supported by Spain, France and Austria.
Human rights groups have expressed considerable concern at these proposals, citing the instability of the North African states involved as well as a moral claim on rich European states to welcome people who are desperate for a better chance in life. But on the continent, politicians stoke populist fears that migrants come to feed off generous social benefits. Increasingly too, some European voices warn of a link between migrants and terror; not only is the destination state’s social and economic stability threatened, in this view, but also its security.