EU ministers are to meet this week to discuss action after between 600 and 700 migrants were feared dead when a boat capsized in the Mediterranean last night.
A Maltese patrol boat has joined Italian vessels and a number of merchant ships looking for survivors in what Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said was the biggest ever tragedy in the Mediterranean.
The EU meeting will be held following a call by French President Francois Hollande, according to international media reports. “If confirmed this would be the worst disaster of recent years in the Mediterranean,” Hollande said on Canal+ television.
Rescue and disaster prevention efforts will need “more boats, more over flights and a much more intense battle against people-trafficking,” Hollande said, adding that he had phoned Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in the wake of the tragedy.
The boat crammed with migrants capsized some 120 miles south of Lampedusa.
The emergency was declared at about midnight when the migrants are believed to have moved to one side of the boat, capsizing it, when a merchant ship approached.
49 survivors were picked up by a Portuguese merchant ship and scores of bodies were seen.
“They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water,” Dr Muscat said.
The incident bears similarities to another case last week when some 400 migrants are believed to have perished.
POPE CALLS FOR ACTION
Pope Francis appealed to the international community to take swift and decisive action to avoid more tragedies.
“They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war. They were looking for a better life,” he told tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square for his Sunday noon address.
“Faced with such a tragedy, I express my most heartfelt pain and promise to remember the victims and their families in prayer,” he said, departing from his prepared text.
“I make a heartfelt appeal to the international community to react decisively and quickly to see to it that such tragedies are not repeated,” he said, before asking the crowd to pray “for these brothers and sisters”.
‘WE HAVE HAD TOO MANY ‘NEVER AGAINS’
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also urged European governments to support action to protect migrants in the Mediterranean.
“We have said too many times ‘never again’. Now is time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay,” Mogherini said in a statement. “We need to save human lives all together, as all together we need to protect our borders and to fight the trafficking of human beings.”
PRESIDENT IN STRONG APPEAL
President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said Malta could no longer look at migration as a “bogeyman” to be feared.
In an impassioned speech at the Vilhena Band Club in Floriana to mark the feast of St Publius, she called for society to welcome and show love to those who appeared as outsiders.
“We cannot have peace while people act in a hostile manner at others just because they see them with dark skin or wearing a headscarf,” she said.
“There are no easy solutions to migration. It’s no longer just about war. In today’s world people are on the move, just like our own children are going abroad to better themselves. If it were us – if we had to leave home for a chance at life with human dignity – wouldn’t we take that chance?”
PM – MALTA WILL DO EVERYTHING TO HELP
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat referred to the tragedy this morning when he spoke at a PL meeting in Marsa.
He said he was informed at 1am that the AFM had been requested to help the Italian forces after the incident took place ‘in Libyan waters’.
He said a Maltese patrol boat was helping in the rescue efforts along with Italian naval ships and cargo vessels.
“They are literally trying to find people alive among the dead floating in the water.”
If confirmed, he said, this would be the biggest tragedy to have ever taken place in the Mediterranean.
The enormity of what was taking place was far more important than other matters, he said.
Malta had problems over migration, he said, but no one should be allowed to die.
He said that despite the talk, Malta and Italy were still alone in this crisis. True, Europe appeared to be showing more understanding, but the bottom line was that this was political talk. What he got on his phone was pleas for help as people fought for their lives.
Malta, he said, should not shirk its responsibilities simply because the migrants were not being brought here.
“A tragedy is unfolding in the Mediterranean and if the EU and the world continue to close their eyes, they will be judged in the harshest terms as it was judged in the past when it closed its eyes to genocides when the comfortable did nothing,” Dr Muscat said.
Malta, he said, would do everything possible to save as many lives as it could. He asked all present to observe a minute’s silence.
NEED FOR URGENT EU MEETING
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, speaking in Siggiewi also expressed his concern and urged the government to offer whatever the country could do to help people’s lives. He also called on the government to seek an urgent EU meeting to address this issue and said the Opposition would back government efforts in this regard.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna used the opportunity of the Feast of St Publius this morning to call for greater respect and tolerance towards irregular migrants.
Celebrating Mass at the Floriana Parish Church, Archbishop Scicluna said the feast day should remind the faithful of the plight of “our brothers ‘shipwrecked’ on the Mediterranean today”.
“We cannot celebrate this feast here today and then turn round and use words of hate towards migrants on social media,” he said.
“Publius took Paul into his home, not knowing who he was. He didn’t ‘send him back’, and he received a great blessing for himself and his country as a result.”
A MAN-MADE TRAGEDY OF APPALLING PROPORTIONS
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia said: “What we are witnessing in the Mediterranean is a man-made tragedy of appalling proportions. These latest deaths at sea come as a shock, but not a surprise.
“Whilst merchant vessels and their crews have bravely attempted to fill the gap left by the chronic shortfall in specialist search and rescue teams, they are not designed, equipped or trained for maritime rescue. It is time for European governments to face their responsibilities and urgently set up a multi-country concerted humanitarian operation to save lives at sea.”