Interior ministers and senior police officials from the 28 countries of the European Union are rushing to Luxembourg for emergency talks on how to respond to the migrant boat tragedies in the Mediterranean.
The meeting comes as reports in Italy suggested the death toll from the weekend capsizing of a fishing vessel packed with migrants could reach 950 – an increase on the 700 deaths reported on Sunday – and as at least 23 migrants were feared dead in separate incidents on Monday.
The interior ministers are to join their countries’ top diplomats on Monday afternoon in what was to have been a routine meeting of EU foreign ministers. The meeting has been transformed into a crisis session amid a clamour for action to stem the loss of life in the Mediterranean.
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini demanded immediate action. “With this latest tragedy … we have no more excuses, the EU has no more excuses, the member states have no more excuses,” she said. “The main issue here is to build a common sense of European responsibility, knowing that there is no easy solution.”
Malta is preparing to bury the bodies of 24 migrants killed in the weekend’s sinking, which looks likely to be the worst of its kind in the Mediterranean. The Italian coastguard dropped off the bodies before heading to Sicily with 28 survivors.
Gen Antonino Iraso of the Italian border police said those small numbers suggest that hundreds may have been locked in the hold, because with so much weight down below, the boat would “surely” have sunk.
Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, said survivors spoke of “haunting experiences”.
One survivor from Bangladesh has told investigators he believed there were about 950 people on board the ship. That report has not been confirmed.
Coastguard officials said the vessel probably overturned when the migrants caught sight of a Portuguese ship and all moved to the same side of their boat.
The Italian coastguard has said rescue operations would continue as long as it believed it would still be possible to find survivors. Commercial vessels and cargo ships – which helped save 40,000 migrants last year – have also been asked to support the mission.
On Monday the International Organisation for Migration said it received a distress call from a boat carrying 300 people in international waters, and a boat ran aground off the Greek island of Rhodes.
In the former incident, the caller said the boat was sinking and there had been about 20 fatalities. In the latter, the Greek coastguard said at least three people had died. Video footage showed a large, wooden double-masted boat, packed with people, just metres from the land. The vessel rocked wildly in the waves and passengers were seen jumping into the sea and swimming towards land.
Libyan smugglers are telling migrants to remain stationary during trips to Europe, in full knowledge that even small movements of such overpacked boats could overbalance and capsize the vessels. According to a Libyan fisherman from a major smuggling hub in west Libya, the ships that capsized with catastrophic effect in recent days did so because migrants ignored instructions to stay put once on board.
“When they leave, they are told to stay where they’re seated,” said the fisherman. “Then at daybreak they realise they’re in the midst of the ocean, they start to shift around, and then the boat, which can only withstand a certain number of tons, has its balance shifted. It starts to take on water and begins to sink.”
Before Sunday’s disaster, the IOM estimated that about 20,000 migrants had reached the Italian coast this year, and 900 had died.
There will be tough words in Luxembourg about clamping down on the criminal networks of people-traffickers in Libya and elsewhere in north Africa and about the need to tackle the roots of the migration epidemic at source in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
Read more: The Guardian