An overloaded boat crowded with hundreds of desperate migrants capsized and sank off the Libyan coast on Sunday, and what authorities fear to be a major maritime disaster is provoking new, insistent calls on Europe to contain a humanitarian emergency unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea.

Survivors told authorities that between 700 and 950 people were aboard. A migrant from Bangladesh told Italian prosecutors that “plenty” of them had been locked in the hold by smugglers.

Nearly 20 rescue vessels — from commercial fishing boats to military ships from Italy and Malta — scrambled to respond to the site of the capsizing, about 120 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. A scene of flailing survivors and floating corpses in the inky water greeted rescuers, and officials said they had saved 28 migrants and recovered 24 bodies.

The death toll was expected to rise sharply, underscoring an increasingly deadly exodus to Europe from a host of war-torn and poverty-ridden nations in Africa and the Middle East.

“What is happening now is of epic proportions,” Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told BBC News. “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.”

Illegal migration into Europe

The capsizing immediately heightened criticism of the wealthy European Union for failing to launch an emergency effort to cope with the soaring number of Europe-bound migrants. After Sunday’s disaster, E.U. officials said they would discuss the situation Monday during an already-scheduled meeting in Luxembourg and would call a crisis summit with foreign and interior ministers from its 28 member states. They did not immediately announce a date.

But on Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi suggested that the real problem lies in Libya, which is a main departure point for migrants and has become a failed state in the aftermath of allied military action that helped bring down the regime of Moammar Gaddafi in 2011. As Libya has unraveled and become a staging ground for Islamist militants, Italy has weighed the option of a Rome-led military mission there, possibly under a United Nations mandate.

Renzi, on Sunday, called for escalated talks with the United Nations and likened the new migrant smuggling routes opening up in lawless Libya to a “21st-century slave trade.”

“If we cannot remove the problem in Libya, we will never succeed in solving this terrible problem,” Renzi told reporters in Rome.

The late-night accident unfolded around midnight Sunday about 70 miles off the Libyan coast. The 65-foot boat apparently capsized, according to the Italian coast guard, after excited migrants spotted a Portuguese commercial vessel approaching and rushed to one side to wave it down. As the boat flipped, a cascade of migrants — many of whom come from landlocked nations and cannot swim — plunged into the sea.

“Our units are still looking for survivors,” said Italian coast guard Commander Filippo Marini.

Marini said rescuers were having trouble communicating with survivors, who were mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, but authorities are assuming that the boat had come from Libya. According to Italy’s ANSA news service, the boat had arrived in Libya from Egypt to load passengers before heading toward Europe. About 50 children and 200 women were among the passengers, ANSA reported.

The Bangladeshi survivor was airlifted by helicopter to Sicily for medical treatment, while others were being treated aboard the Italian coast guard vessel Gregoretti.

The number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean rose sharply last year to more than 220,000, with the majority arriving in Italy, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. So far this month, more than 13,300 migrants have arrived — a number roughly equal to the first three months of the year combined. The death toll has also jumped. Even before Sunday’s disaster, 950 migrants had gone to their deaths in the central Mediterranean this year — compared with only 50 during the same period last year, UNHCR said.

After a similar disaster off Lampedusa in October 2013, Italy — spurred in part by Pope Francis — rolled out a sweeping search-and-rescue operation last year to aid migrant boats, an effort credited by human rights groups with saving tens of thousands of lives. But the program was costly, and it became a lighting rod for opponents who said it was encouraging ever-riskier journeys.

Italy ended the program in November, leaving in place a much-reduced pan-European operation operated by Frontex, the region’s border management agency. It operates on one-third the budget and with a more limited mandate to monitor in and around Italian waters.

Renzi said the former Italian program, called Mare Nostrum, would not have prevented Sunday’s disaster. He noted that the untold deaths were caused not by a lack of search-and-rescue ships but by the overexcitement of passengers after a merchant ship was coming to their aid.

Nevertheless, the E.U., an alliance of 28 nations known for bureaucratic and gradual responses on everything from the European debt crisis to the war in Ukraine, was again being blamed for less than rapid action.

“The EU is standing by with arms crossed while hundreds die off its shores,” Judith Sunderland, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “These deaths might well have been prevented if the EU had launched a genuine search-and-rescue effort.”

Some European leaders also began calling for a stepped-up regional effort. Speaking to Canal-Plus television, French President François Hollande called for “more boats, more overflights and a much stronger battle against people trafficking.”

Even before Sunday’s tragedy, criticism of the E.U.’s current response was rising. On Saturday, Pope Francis joined the chorus, saying, “It is evident that the proportions of the phenomenon require much broader involvement.”

Yet a more robust response to aid migrants is considered highly controversial in Europe, where some argue that such a program would encourage more migrants to come. “If we now accepted everyone arriving in the Mediterranean into Europe, this would be the best business imaginable for people-smugglers,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told public broadcaster ZDF last week.

The number of migrants has surged as Libya — a country now viewed as the waiting room for those seeking sanctuary in the wealthy nations of Europe — has spiraled into chaos and violence. With two warring factions and two governments in Libya, the state apparatus has collapsed. There is no Libyan coast guard. That has opened the way to more and increasingly brazen smuggling operations, siphoning refugees from all over the Middle East and Africa.

It has created treacherous conditions for those desperate enough to traverse Libya in their search for new lives in Europe.

Carlotta Bellini, Save the Children’s Rome head of child protection, said she had heard “atrocious stories” from the unaccompanied minors among the ranks of migrants who have come over in recent months. Traffickers, she said, often physically and sexually abuse migrants, sometimes resorting to shooting at them to corral large numbers onto overloaded boats. The journey can cost $1,000 or more — a sum that often amounts to a life’s savings.

Bellini said she worried that Renzi’s increasing focus on the need to restore law to the Libyan coast would end up creating a bottleneck of migrants trapped there in ever-worsening conditions.

“We don’t want Libya to become the prison of these migrants,” she said.

Stefano Pitrelli in Treviso, Italy, contributed to this report.

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