Reports of new large-scale migrant deaths on Friday overshadowed official commemorations for the first year anniversary of the landmark Lampedusa shipwreck, underscoring a deepening crisis.
Some 130 migrants were presumed dead after two boats capsized Thursday only 5.5 kilometers from the Libyan cities of Garabuli and Tajura, according to the Italian Council of Refugees (CIR), a migrant rights’ group.
“It seems that the total number of passengers on the two boats was 250, and only 120 were rescued by the Libyan coast guard. Ten corpses were recovered. Searches by Libyan authorities are still ongoing,” CIR said.
Last October, the Lampedusa tragedy was unprecedented, as 366 migrants perished off the Italian island for which the incident is known.
But last month, 500 migrants who went missing from a boat that sank in the central Mediterranean were presumed dead.
Dozens of survivors and relatives of victims, as well as Italian and European dignitaries, travelled to the tiny Italian island to take part in commemorations, which included the placement of a gravestone on the seabed next to the wreck.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz was heckled while participating in the ceremony with Italian Foreign Minister and EU foreign affairs chief in-waiting Federica Mogherini.
“You use dead people and the relatives of the victims to hide your own responsibilities, you are the ones who are guilty,” a man from the Lampedusa-based Askavusa left-wing collective shouted at Schulz, while others chanted “shame, shame” outside the building.
On its website, Askavusa denounces the “militarisation” of Lampedusa, opposes the planned reopening of a migrant detention centre, denounces EU “aggression, exploitation” and arm sales around the world, and urges the bloc to open its doors to refugees.
In an earlier interview with dpa, Schulz said: “It’s completely clear we have to help, but it also needs to be said that we can’t promise a rapid solution.”
Fuelled by unrest in Syria, Gaza and the Horn of Africa, migrant inflows to Europe have boomed. A record of more than 139,200 have landed in Italy this year, according to a Thursday count, 90,000 of which were picked up by the country’s Mare Nostrum sea patrols.
“The European Union must acknowledge that we are an immigration continent, because public order is collapsing in neighboring regions and people are coming to us in distress,” Schulz said.
“We have to grant asylum to political refugees, expand temporary protection and create an immigration policy. That will take a while, especially since there is some opposition in Europe,” the German Social Democrat politician.
In the wake of Lampedusa and of another deadly shipwreck in Maltese waters, Italy launched Mare Nostrum. But despite its efforts, the death toll on the Mediterranean has skyrocketed to 3,000 this year, compared to 600 in 2013.
An EU mission is due to supplement Mare Nostrum on November 1, but there are concerns it may have scarcer resources and may patrol smaller stretches of sea. EU nations at also at loggerheads over sharing the burden of incoming asylum-seekers.
Looking ahead to her new role, Mogherini said she would chair a joint meeting of EU foreign and interior ministers in Rome on November 27 to discuss the crisis, and said cooperating with Libya and opening legal migration channels would be priorities.
Meanwhile, Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, speaking from Tunis, said Mare Nostrum needed to be closed “immediately after” the launch of the new EU sea mission, as patrolling the Mediterranean had to be a European, rather than Italian responsibility.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right opposition party Northern League, dismissed Mare Nostrum as “a clear, total failure, an idiocy to be stopped,” because it had failed to reduce migrant inflows and deaths at sea.
Amnesty International has calculated that mortality rates among sea migrants have dropped to 1.9 per cent, from more than 3 per cent, thanks to Italian patrols. However, the absolute number of deaths has risen because more people were attempting to make the journey.