ITALIAN PRIME Minister Matteo Renzi said during a visit to The Post on Friday that the only way to stem the flood of African migrants seeking refuge in Europe was for “the tribes” of Libya “to make peace.” While there is truth in that observation, it understates the obligation of Italy and other European nations to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. That became tragically clear over the weekend, as a vessel estimated to be carrying 700 or more people capsized off the Libyan coast. Only 28 people were rescued as of Monday, which means the death toll could be the highest in the Mediterranean since World War II.
Mr. Renzi is right that Libya is at the root of a crisis that last year caused 170,000 people to travel to Italy by sea — and tens of thousands more so far this year. Many of the migrants are from sub-Saharan Africa, Somalia or even Syria; but most board boats in Libya, often under the direction of smuggling networks. Some originally sought refuge in that once-wealthy north African oil state, only to be driven to leave by its civil war and the appearance of terrorist groups associated with the Islamic State.
It’s also true that an end to Libya’s disorder will require a political settlement among its feuding sides, which currently include two competing governments, each of which is backed by foreign powers. A United Nations mediator said Sunday that 80 percent of a draft peace proposal had been agreed to, but that may sound too optimistic: It’s not clear that either government controls the armed forces nominally fighting for them.
In the meantime, thousands of desperate people are packing onto boats with the coming of spring. The International Organization for Migration says about 10,000 were picked up by the Italian coast guard and other boats in just six days beginning April 10; it says 950 died en route this year even before the weekend disaster. The director of the European Union’s border control agency said recently that between 500,000 and 1 million people were waiting to leave Libya.
Only the European Union can help these migrants, especially once they take to the sea. Shamefully, however, governments under pressure from domestic anti-immigrant parties have shrunk from the task. Last year Italy undertook its own, much-praised operation to rescue people from boats, saving many; but it was scaled back in October after other governments declined to join in and some complained, wrongheadedly, that the effort itself might be attracting migrants. In recent months a much smaller E.U. search-and-rescue mission has been limited to Italy’s territorial waters, making it far more likely that sinkings and other accidents will lead to mass deaths.
Thankfully, the weekend disaster appears to have galvanized — or maybe shamed — E.U. governments, who agreed to hold a summit meeting Thursday to consider solutions. The starting point should be obvious: the resumption of a large-scale search-and-rescue operation like that abandoned by Italy. But European leaders should also consider providing more legal ways for African refugees to seek refuge in their countries, without having to board smuggling boats; and they should consider more forceful steps to combat the smugglers and to help restore order in Libya. What shouldn’t be an option is continuing to ignore the humanitarian crisis spilling into the Mediterranean.