The Slatest

Up to 700 Feared Dead in Migrant Shipwreck Off Libya

A migrant sits on a concrete block at the waterfront of the Sicilian harbor in Palermo, on April 19, 2015.

Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

As many as 700 people are feared dead after a fishing boat capsized in waters off Libya Saturday night in what could be the deadliest tragedy involving migrants being smuggled to Europe. Italy’s Coast Guard has rescued 49 survivors and about 20 bodies; as many as 700 are believed to still be in the water, the U.N.’s refugee agency—UNHCR—tells the Guardian. In a statement, the Coast Guard said it believed the 66-foot vessel overturned when migrants rushed to one side of the boat as they saw another vessel approach, reports the Associated Press. “They wanted to be rescued. They saw another ship. They were trying to make themselves known to it,” Barbara Moline, a UNHCR spokeswoman said.

The deaths from this tragedy will have to be added to at least 900 other migrants who are thought to have died since the beginning of the year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, notes the BBC. In an illustration of how large the problem has become, Italy’s Coast Guard rescued 10,000 migrants this past week alone. And it comes amid increasing global outcry over the rising death toll of desperate migrants trying to make it to Europe. Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tells Bloomberg that he and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi have agreed to call for an urgent European Union summit on the issue.

“What is happening now is of epic proportions. If Europe, if the global community continues to turn a blind eye … we will all be judged in the same way that history has judged Europe when it turned a blind eye to the genocide of this century and last century,” Muscat tells the BBC.

Pope Francis also spoke up on the issue for the second straight day on Sunday, calling on the international community to take stronger action to prevent more tragedies involving migrants. “They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war. They were looking for a better life, they were looking for happiness,” Francis told thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

The first four months of the year have seen deaths of migrants soar almost ninefold, reports Reuters. And if this latest death toll is confirmed, the number of deaths this year would be at least 30 times higher than it was the first four months of 2014, points out the Guardian. The increase comes months after the Italian-run maritime rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum ended amid complaints from the European Union that it was costing too much money and may have been encouraging smugglers.