Hundreds of Migrants Believed Dead in Shipwreck Off Libya – Wall Street Journal
ROME—As many as 700 migrants are believed to have died in a shipwreck off the Libyan coast, piling pressure on European leaders who have been stymied in their search for a solution to the migration problem by rising anti-immigration sentiment, chaos in Libya and the crush of asylum seekers in some countries.
According to the Italian Coast Guard, a 20-meter-long fishing boat, which was heavily overcrowded and had departed from Libya, launched a distress call during the night Saturday. The Italians sent a Portuguese mercantile vessel, the King Jacob, to help the boat, but when the migrants, all sub-Saharan Africans, saw the ship approach, they rushed to one side, capsizing the boat, said the coast guard.
Passengers aboard the boat told aid workers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that it originally held more than 700 people, but only 28 had been rescued by Sunday afternoon. The Italian Coast Guard has dispatched 17 ships, including Maltese vessels, Italian fishing boats and other private vessels, to the area to search for other survivors. They have recovered 28 bodies so far.
Antonino Iraso, an officer with the Italian tax police, whose ships are involved in the search-and-rescue operation, told Italian television the teams have sighted an oil slick, floating life jackets and fragments of wood in the area where the boat sank.
“They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war,” said Pope Francis during his weekly Sunday address. He appealed to the international community “to react decisively and quickly to see to it that such tragedies are not repeated.”
The route from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa has become the deadliest migrant route in the world. If the deaths are confirmed, it would mark one of the largest losses of migrants’ lives and bring to about 1,600 the number of people who have died since the start of the year in attempting to make the passage. For all of 2014, nearly 3,200 died on that route, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration.
French President François Hollande called the weekend’s disaster “the worst catastrophe in recent years in the Mediterranean.”
Last year, about 170,000 African and Middle Eastern migrants arrived in Italy using that passage, with a total of nearly 300,000 arrivals in all since the start of 2011.
Conflicts and poverty in African and the Middle East have driven people to attempt the dangerous journey in ever greater numbers. Moreover, the dissolution of law and order in Libya has allowed people smugglers to work with impunity. In recent months, the situation has worsened still, as many foreigners who had found work in Libya before the conflict erupted there are now trying to flee the country. As a result, aid organizations and border control officials expect the sea arrivals this year to easily surpass last year’s numbers.
The deaths underscore the inability of the EU to find a robust and united response so far to the migration phenomenon, with deep differences on core issues such as accepting asylum seekers and finding a solution to the deterioration of Libya.
On Sunday, the European Commission issued a statement saying it was “deeply chagrined” by the news and called for “bold action.” It will consult with member states and aid groups as part of a plan to produce a new migration strategy in mid-May.
That plan may include a beefed-up budget for border control. In late 2013, after more than 300 African migrants died in a shipwreck, the Italian government established a sweeping search-and-rescue program. But political pressure forced Rome to scrap the program late last year, and it was replaced with far more limited EU patrols. That has left the Italian Coast Guard and mercantile vessels struggling to cope with the huge flow of migrants.
“Europe can do more and Europe must do more,” said European Parliament chief Martin Schulz. “It is a shame and a confession of failure how many countries run away from responsibility.”
But little enthusiasm exists for a strong, EU-supported search-and-rescue program, with leaders in some countries arguing that saving the migrants only encourages more to attempt the journey.
If some stability returned and a national unity government were formed in Libya, the EU could send a security mission that could help guard the ports and stem the people-smuggling trade, say officials. But Italy has struggled to gain support for an international response to help stabilize Libya.
The Italians have also proposed setting up havens in Egypt and Tunisia to allow refugees to file for asylum from there, but other EU members are unlikely to be willing to establish consular services in places that may be deemed too dangerous.
The surge in numbers of asylum seekers is only exacerbating the disarray among policy makers, making a solution more elusive. Last year, 626,000 people applied for asylum in the EU, up 43% over 2013. The rise has fueled anti-immigrant sentiment in many countries. In Italy, images of decrepit boats teeming with migrants have stoked resentments in a country locked in a protracted economic downturn and where the percentage of immigrants in the population has tripled in the last decade.
Anti-immigrant parties such as the Northern League have seized on the flows to criticize the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Authorities in local towns, particularly in the north, are fiercely resisting demands from the Italian Interior Ministry to resettle the migrants in their areas. There were 68,000 migrants housed in reception centers in February, compared with 17,000 at the start of 2014.
Last weekend, the Northern League set up gazebos in many towns where Italian citizens could “request asylum.” The stunt came ahead of regional elections was a way to drive home their argument that refugees are milking Italy’s welfare system.
‘Europe can do more and Europe must do more.’
The poor economic prospects and weak support for migrants in Italy—where they can be seen sleeping in train stations or squatting in abandoned buildings—sends many north seeking more generous benefits. That has touched off tensions across the EU.
In Sweden, which has seen the largest number of asylum applications per capita, a far-right party won the third largest number of votes in last September’s parliamentary election on the back of strong anti-immigration sentiment.
Germany, with its relatively healthy economy and extensive social safety net, is the most popular destination. Nearly a third of the 626,065 refugees who filed asylum claims in the EU last year did so in Germany. An even bigger rise is likely this year after a sudden spike in the winter of arrivals from Kosovo. From January to March, 85,394 people applied for asylum in Germany, more than double the total in the same period last year.
The crush of migrants is overwhelming the authorities. Germany’s Interior Ministry reported a backlog of 200,000 undecided asylum applications at the end of March, double the total a year before.
State and local officials, who are responsible for putting up the asylum seekers, are pleading with landlords to rent out apartments as refugee shelters and arguing with the federal government in Berlin about how to share the cost of housing the new arrivals. They have converted gyms, auditoriums and a stadium into temporary shelter for asylum seekers.
But for German leaders, the biggest challenge is political. Especially in the poorer, former Communist East Germany, protests against the high numbers of migrants have gripped the public.
In the eastern German city of Dresden, anti-immigrant protests by a group called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, which reached their high point this winter, have continued. They drew about 10,000 people to an appearance by Dutch anti-Islam activist Geert Wilders last Monday.
—Anton Troianvoski and Valentina Pop contributed to this article.
Write to Deborah Ball at email@example.com