A migrant boat capsizes off the coast of Italy on May 26. On Friday, another boat filled with hundreds of migrants capsized near the island of Crete. (Marina Militare via AP)

A grim succession of shipwrecks and drownings in the Mediterranean Sea this week has highlighted a shift in migrant smuggling operations away from relatively safer routes into Europe and sparked recriminations about whether European governments are doing enough to stem the flow.

The rising death toll spiked Friday with the discovery of more than 100 drowning victims off the Libyan coast, as rescuers searched for survivors of at least two other stricken boats in waters off Crete and Egypt. The new wrecks padded a toll estimated to exceed 1,000 this week.

With 2015 as the deadliest year on record for those who sought passage into Europe by sea, more than 2,500 people have died so far this year, compared with 1,800 in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In the past 10 days alone, the 2016 death toll for migrants attempting to make the central Mediterranean crossing — from North Africa to Europe, typically via Italy and its outer islands — has already doubled. That has shifted the focus of refugee organizations from the shorter, safer Greek route traveled mainly by people from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East to those who are crossing from the Maghreb.

For many in Europe and North Africa, the question is why no systematic European Union policy or temporary solution has been put in place to prevent further deaths at sea.


In Libya on Friday, Col. Ayoub Gassim, a spokesman for the Libyan navy, blamed E.U. leaders, who he said were “doing nothing but counting bodies.” The accusation struck a chord even in Brussels, the E.U. headquarters, where some critics cited the nature of E.U. policymaking.

“Everybody knows what needs to be done — an E.U. border and coast guard agency,” said Marc Pierini, a former E.U. ambassador to Libya and Syria.

The E.U. does have a border control agency, known as “Frontex.” But it has neither vessels nor surveillance equipment of its own, relying instead on individual E.U. member states to provide both.

“We are definitely in crisis-management mode only, which is not good for seeing the next crisis coming and getting the proper structures in place,” Pierini said in a telephone interview from Brussels.

“We are dealing with short-termism. And basically putting patches on leaks,” he said. “They talk about keeping the numbers down, as if the numbers are not human beings like you and me.”

An Italian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss E.U. deliberations, said Italy has been pressing its European partners for more than a year to take greater action, such as deploying more ships and other resources, to address the growing number of deaths in the Mediterranean.

Video from the Italian navy shows a large ship capsizing off Libya’s coast on May 25 with more than 500 migrants aboard. (Italian Navy)

Another obstacle is resistance from the Italian and Greek governments to hosting any substantial, long-term humanitarian aid operations on their shores. The rationale typically stems from a desire to protect their countries from becoming holding pens for migrants who have no claim to E.U. asylum.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported Tuesday that at least 880 migrants and refugees had died trying to cross the Mediterranean in the past week.

As the approaching summer brings warmer weather and better sea conditions, smugglers from North Africa are likely to continue packing migrants into unseaworthy vessels bound for Europe in dangerous conditions.

A migrant resettlement deal between the E.U. and Turkey in March, which effectively closed much of the “Balkan route” from Greece into Western Europe, also means that more migrants are likely to be smuggled along the central Mediterranean route in the coming months.

Gassim, the Libyan navy spokesman, told the Associated Press that Libyan coast guard personnel found a capsized smuggling boat Thursday. Given the typical capacity of these vessels, he said, the actual death toll may even be as high as 125.

Similar emergencies were reported Friday across the Mediterranean, as governments from Europe and North Africa launched immediate rescue operations.

Seventy-five miles from the southern coast of Crete, Greek authorities dispatched a military aircraft, three helicopters and two patrol vessels to attend to a capsized boat carrying what officials first described as a “significant number of migrants.”

According to a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 342 migrants were rescued and four bodies were recovered. The search continued throughout the day.

Farther south, the Egyptian military responded to a distress call from a smuggling boat carrying an unknown number of migrants toward Europe.

On its official Facebook page, the military said Friday that it dispatched ships and helicopters to a site about 165 miles off the coast of Sallum, a seaside town in northwestern Egypt. The number of migrants aboard the vessel remains unclear.

The danger posed by the central Mediterranean route is hardly news to leaders in Europe or North Africa. Similar tragedies have plagued the region for years.

In October 2013, a vessel carrying more than 500 people capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, leaving 359 confirmed dead.

The migrant crisis, the largest on European soil since the end of World War II, has only worsened since then. More than 1 million people poured into the continent in 2015.

As the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica: “Because of its geographical position and because of a social and cultural resilience, Italy could, should have a leading role” in accommodating asylum seekers.

The government does not share the sentiment.

When migrants make landfall in Italy, authorities are required by law to process them for political asylum. But the European Union has sanctioned Italy for failing to fingerprint the new arrivals it receives, which decreases the number it must shelter.

Last month, Angelino Alfano, Italy’s interior minister, proposed an idea of “floating hot spots” where migrants would be subject to health, security and identity checks while still at sea.

Although many details behind the project remain unclear, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, is likely to reject the proposal, on the grounds that the hot spots violate the freedom of movement protected by E.U. human rights law.

Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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