COUNTRIES across Europe have been accused of "closing their eyes" to the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean amid growing outrage at the failure of European leaders to agree a new search-and-rescue mission.
The United Nations said that as many as 700 people may have drowned when a small fishing boat capsized 60 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa late on Saturday.
If the death toll is confirmed, it could be the worst single migrant drowning of the current crisis, and mean 1,600 people will have died attempting to reach Europe by boat in 2015 alone.
The EU has announced an emergency meeting of foreign and interior ministers to discuss the crisis, but governments including Britain have so far shown no inclination to reinstate proactive search-and-rescue missions.
These were halted last October, despite saving an estimated 100,000 lives, amid fears that the operation was encouraging smugglers and migrants to organise more trips.
"A tragedy is unfolding in the Mediterranean and, if the EU and the world continue to close their eyes, it will be judged in the harshest terms as it was judged in the past when it closed its eyes to genocides," said the Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat.
The tiny island was helping in the hunt for survivors.
There were calls, including from Sweden's government, to reinstate search-and-rescue operations. Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said: "This disaster confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe."
Morgan Johansson, the Swedish Minister for Justice and Migration, said: "More EU countries must take responsibility for the refugee situation." Mr Johansson called for an expansion of the EU's Triton border protection programme, which operates only within 30 miles of the Italian coast.
Other countries, including Britain, have opposed expanding the search-and-rescue operation.
Last year, Britain said it would only send technical expertise to EU border agency Frontex, claiming that search-and-rescue encouraged more migrants to make the dangerous journey.
In a statement, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, pointedly failed to mention restarting the programme, while the Home Office, which has responsibility for Britain's policy at an EU level, refused to comment on the tragedy.
The shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, said this was unacceptable. "The British Government must immediately reverse its opposition to EU search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, as the EU needs to restart the rescue as soon as possible," she added.
Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, said: "In the run-up to the… election, now is the time for all UK political parties to commit to supporting an effective EU-led search-and-rescue operation. EU governments must not turn their backs on those drowning at sea."
But Italy's Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, whose government oversaw the end of the previous, largely successful Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation in October, said the real problem was the "new slavery" of traffickers who organised the trips.
"Those who say the tragedy could have been avoided with Mare Nostrum don't know what they're talking about: the rescuers were there at the time of the accident," he said. He ruled out a naval blockade of Libya's coast, from which many people-trafficking vessels are known to depart.
Rescuers continued the desperate search for people who may have survived.
The Italian Coast Guard said the migrants' 20m vessel was sinking as a Portuguese-registered merchant ship, King Jacob, attempted a rescue at about midnight on Saturday.
It picked up 28 passengers but the boat then capsized, flinging hundreds into the water. In Rome, the Coast Guard's command centre said the vessel may have overturned "because its occupants moved to the side closest to the cargo ship", believing they were going to be rescued.
Carlotta Sami, of the UNHCR, said the latest horror - less than a week after the deaths of 400 migrants at sea - was "a slaughter without precedent".
The tiny Italian island of Lampedusa between Sicily and North Africa was scrambling to react to the latest tragedy.
Before dawn, coastguard, customs and fishing boats all left to help with the rescue.
But the Coast Guard spokesman, Filippo Marini, said it would be almost impossible to recover any bodies. Italian coast guard vessels hunt for survivors in the Strait of Sicily after a ship packed with migrants from Libya capsized Italian coast guard vessels hunt for survivors in the Strait of Sicily after a ship packed with migrants from Libya capsized
Justin Forsyth, the chief executive of Save the Children, said: "Europe can no longer look the other way."
"A mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean and European policies are responsible," added Loris De Filippi, the Italian president of Médecins Sans Frontières.
The European Commission said it would adopt a new migration strategy in mid-May, adding: "What we need is immediate actions to prevent further loss of life as well as a comprehensive approach to managing migration better in all its aspects."
The UNHCR says deaths of migrants crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats are up 50 per cent this year.
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