A major rescue operation is under way in the Mediterranean after as many as 700 migrants are feared to have drowned just outside Libyan waters, in what could prove to be the worst disaster yet involving migrants being smuggled to Europe.
Italian coastguards have retrieved 28 survivors so far and about 20 bodies, according to the interior ministry, after the boat went down overnight about 60 miles (96km) off the Libyan coast and 120 miles (193km) south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, told the Guardian that up to 700 may remain in the water, according to numbers supplied by a survivor. The accident happened after the migrants saw a merchant ship in the distance and scrambled to attract its attention, over-balancing the fishing boat in which they were travelling.
If confirmed, Sunday morning’s accident means that at least 1,500 migrants have died so far in 2015 while on route to Europe – at least 30 times higher than last year’s equivalent figure, which was itself a record. It comes just days after 400 others drowned last week in a similar incident.
The deaths prompted fresh calls for Europe to reinstate full-scale search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Last October, the EU opted not to replace the Italian-run operation Mare Nostrum, which saved about 100,000 lives last year, amid fears that it was encouraging smugglers and migrants to organise more trips to Europe.
Pope Francis, an outspoken advocate for greater European-wide participation in rescue efforts, reiterated his call for action during mass on Sunday after learning of the latest disaster.
“They are men and women like us – our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war,” he said from St Peter’s Square.
Save the Children, one of the primary aid agencies working with migrants arriving in Italy, called on EU leaders to hold crisis talks in the next 48 hours and to resume search-and-rescue operations.
“It is time to put humanity before politics and immediately restart the rescue,” the organisation said in a statement. “Europe cannot look the other way while thousands die on our shores.”
Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, called for an urgent meeting of EU leaders this week.
“How can it be that we daily are witnessing a tragedy?” Renzi asked, before convening his own cabinet for an emergency meeting.
The EU commission for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, is due in Italy on Thursday. The EU indicated it would convene ministers to reevaluate its approach towards the crisis on its doorstep.