By James Mackenzie and Robin Emmott
CATANIA, Italy/LUXEMBOURG– The European Union proposed doubling the size of its Mediterranean search and rescue operations on Monday, as the first bodies were brought ashore of as many as 900 people feared killed in the deadliest known shipwreck of migrants trying to reach Europe.
Three other rescue operations were underway on Monday to save hundreds more migrants in peril on overloaded vessels making the journey from the north coast of Africa to Europe.
The mass deaths have caused shock in Europe, where a decision to scale back naval operations last year seems to have increased the risks for migrants without reducing their numbers.
“The situation in the Mediterranean is dramatic. It cannot continue like this,” said European Council President Donald Tusk, calling an extraordinary summit of EU leaders for Thursday to plan how to stop human traffickers and boost rescue efforts.
Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said as many as 900 people may have died in Sunday’s disaster off the coast of Libya when a large boat capsized. That would be the highest death toll in recent times among migrants, who are trafficked in the tens of thousands in rickety vessels across the Mediterranean.
As 27 survivors of the disaster arrived in Italy on a coast guard vessel late on Monday, authorities said the captain of the migrant boat and his deputy had been arrested on suspicion of people smuggling.
EU ministers held a moment of silence at a meeting in Luxembourg to discuss the crisis. The bloc’s executive, the European Commission, presented a ten-point plan to address the crisis, which would include doubling the size and the funding of “Triton”, an EU naval operation in the Mediterranean.
But even that would leave the operation smaller and less well-funded than an Italian mission abandoned last year due to costs and domestic opposition to sea rescues that could attract even more migrants.