Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Wednesday pressed the European Union to help shoulder the burden of curbing migrant trafficking in African countries, after more than 800 migrants drowned when a ship capsized Sunday in the Mediterranean Sea.
And, overnight, the U.N. Security Council urged a more muscular response to combat human trafficking. It also encouraged more financial aid and assistance to Italy and other southern European countries on the crisis’ front lines.
Renzi, addressing Italian lawmakers in Rome on Wednesday, said the 28-member European Union must prioritize the migrant crisis if it "wants to be more than a simple assembly of countries that are members of an economic club," the Associated Press reported.
While Italy has rescued 200,000 migrants since early 2014, its "noble generosity alone isn’t enough," Renzi said. "We are asking Europe to be Europe, not just when it’s time to devise a budget."
Measures could include setting up refugee camps in Africa, with U.N. support, and expanding sea patrols to deter "21st-century slave drivers" preying on migrants, Renzi suggested.
Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti also recommended military intervention targeting human smugglers.
European leaders have scheduled an emergency summit Thursday in Brussels to discuss how to halt trafficking and bolster rescue efforts.
The European Union has come under mounting criticism for failing to develop an adequate response to the flow of migrants from north Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia seeking a more stable life in Europe. Last year, the EU scrapped a Mediterranean search-and-rescue program over some members' concerns that the maritime operations were encouraging more migrants to make the dangerous voyage to Europe.
With Sunday’s capsizing alone, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees "now believes the number of fatalities to have been over 800, making this the deadliest incident in the Mediterranean we have ever recorded," spokesman Arian Edwards said in Geneva.
European authorities continue to investigate how the migrant boat bound from strife-torn Libya to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa capsized, with only 28 people rescued. Italian prosecutors said the ship's Tunisian captain, who has been arrested, mistakenly rammed his boat into a Portuguese container ship that was coming to its rescue.
Rights groups applying pressure
Rights groups have stepped up their calls for solutions to the humanitarian crisis.
Amnesty International called on European leaders Wednesday to launch a humanitarian effort to end the "spiraling tragedy" of migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.
In a report released in Paris, it called the maritime disasters "Europe's sinking shame." Amnesty urged the EU leaders meeting Thursday to immediately authorize a humanitarian operation with more more ships, aircraft and other resources to patrol the Mediterranean and rescue migrants when their lives are at risk.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's director for Europe and Central Asia, said, "Europe’s negligence in failing to save thousands of migrants and refugees who run into peril in the Mediterranean has been akin to firefighters refusing to save people jumping from a towering inferno."
European officials have voiced their sympathy at the loss of lives in Sunday's migrant capsize disaster. However, some have said the answer to the crisis is not a more accommodating immigration policy, but better armed patrols to keep migrant boats from leaving Africa for the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Europe.
Children among victims
The rights group Save the Children reported Wednesday that it has learned some 60 adolescents were on board the ship when it capsized off the Libyan coast. It warned that if current trends continue, some 2,500 migrant children could die in similar accidents on the Mediterranean this year.
A Save the Children It said four boys claiming to be younger than 18 survived Sunday’s accident, when the migrant ship’s captain mistakenly rammed his vessel into a merchant ship that was coming to its rescue.
Italian prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania said the Tunisian captain steered his overloaded boat into a Portuguese container ship just before it capsized off the coast of Libya on Sunday. Authorities say it is the Mediterranean's deadliest migrant disaster. There were only 28 survivors.
The prosecutors absolved the merchant ship of any responsibility for the tragedy.
A second migrant vessel crashed Monday near the Greek island of Rhodes. Three people drowned, and more than 90 were rescued.
Europe is being overwhelmed by the influx of migrants, who need shelter and care. Migrants can be detained for years at Italian reception centers while awaiting outcomes of their asylum requests, the AP reported. Others disregard expulsion orders and instead sneak away to find relatives in northern Europe.
Some information for this report was contributed by the Associated Press and Reuters.