MILAN -- European leaders struggled Monday for an adequate response in the face of unremitting refugee flows and continued instability in Libya that has given free rein to human traffickers.
Even as the search continued for victims of a weekend disaster in which hundreds of people were said to be missing, coast guard ships rushed to respond to new distress calls -- two off Libya and at least one near Greece.
Decrying what he called an "escalation in these death voyages," Italian Premier Matteo Renzi urged Europe to put the focus on preventing more boats from leaving Libya, the source of 90 percent of such traffic to Italy.
"We are facing an organized criminal activity that is making lots of money, but above all ruining many lives," Renzi said at a joint news conference with Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat. He compared the smugglers' activity to that of slave traders of centuries past, "unscrupulous men who traded human lives."
The European Union foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said recent shipwrecks have "finally" fully awakened the EU to the evils of human trafficking.
The EU has been under increasing criticism for lagging in its response to the crisis, with two shipwrecks believed to have taken the lives of as many as 1,300 people in the past week. Another 400 people are believed to have drowned in a ship that capsized April 13.
Stopping the traffickers will be a key item on the agenda when EU leaders meet in an emergency meeting Thursday in Brussels. Leaders will take up a plan to double spending on sea patrols off Europe's southern border. The 10-point plan includes a proposal to take "civil-military" action modeled on Europe's anti-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia, to capture and destroy boats used by traffickers.
Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, expressed dismay at what he characterized as European apathy over the migration crisis.
"How many more people will have to drown until we finally act in Europe?" he asked in a statement. "How many times more do we want to express our dismay, only to then move on to our daily routine?"
Meanwhile, new details emerged about the weekend disaster, with Italian prosecutors saying early today that they have arrested the Tunisian captain and a Syrian crew member of the boat, which capsized off the coast of Libya.
Assistant prosecutor Rocco Liguori said the two men were charged with favoring illegal immigration and that the captain was also charged with reckless multiple homicide in relation to the sinking.
The captain and crew member were arrested aboard the rescue boat that carried survivors from the shipwreck to Sicily.
Speaking Monday at a news conference in Catania, Sicily, prosecutor Giovanni Salvi said, "A few hundred were forced into the hold and they were locked in and prevented from coming out." He said hundreds more were locked on a second level of the boat, which also had hundreds of people squeezed onto its upper deck.
Salvi said the passengers rushed to one side of the boat as they saw a Portuguese-flagged container vessel approach, with the promise of rescue contributing to the disaster.
"Merchant ships don't have adequate training for rescues in the seas," Salvi warned. "The fact is, sea rescues are difficult and require professionalism. "
As with similar accidents, a precise death toll will likely never be known. Only 24 bodies have been recovered so far, and only 27 people were rescued. One survivor, identified as a 32-year-old Bangladeshi, has put the number of people on board at as many as 950, though Salvi said the survivor had no means to verify numbers. He said the coast guard estimated more than 700 people were on board, based on its observations at the scene.
Salvi cautioned that estimating the death toll should be done with "extreme cautiousness."
The prosecutor said the ship likely began its journey in Egypt and then made several stops along the African coastline, collecting more people before turning toward Italy. He said his office was also investigating the causes of why the boat capsized.
Muscat called the tragedy "a game-changer" and said that "if Europe doesn't work together, history will judge it very badly."
Renzi said recent events had proved that providing rescue isn't always possible, given the conditions of the smugglers' boats and the delicacy of such operations, and that the focus needs to be on preventing the boats from leaving Libya.
Even as European leaders grappled with how to respond to the crisis, more unseaworthy boats were setting off Monday on the perilous journey. Renzi said Italian ships were rushing to respond to distress calls from an inflatable life raft near the Libyan coast with 100 to 150 people on board and to another boat carrying about 300 people.
The International Organization for Migration earlier said its Rome office had received distress calls from three boats in need of help. The group said the caller reported 300 people on his sinking boat, with about 20 fatalities. No details were available about the other boats or their location, and it was not clear if they were the same rescues to which Renzi referred.
In a separate accident, at least three people, including a child, were killed and 93 were rescued when a wooden boat carrying dozens of people who had departed from Turkey ran aground off the Greek island of Rhodes.
Costs of trafficking
Prosecutors in Palermo, meanwhile, said a trafficking ring they had cracked had generated transactions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars crisscrossing Europe as people paid not only to cross the Mediterranean but also to join relatives in northern Europe.
Prosecutor Maurizio Scalia said that based on telephone intercepts, the average cost to smuggle a person from Eritrea or Ethiopia to Libya was $4,000 to $5,000, while the crossing to Italy cost an additional $1,000 to $1,500. People pay hundreds of dollars more to get out of holding centers and at least another $1,000 to travel to northern Europe.
Payments for each leg are made up front, often using the Islamic hawala banking system, which is based on an informal honor code in which a relative in northern Europe pays a local broker and the payment information is transmitted to the traffickers on the ground, advising them that the leg has been paid for.
Authorities identified the trafficking ring's mastermind as Ermias Ghermay, an Ethiopian who has been sought since the October 2013 shipwreck off Lampedusa that left 366 people dead. He is believed to be in Libya. Authorities issued arrest warrants for 24 people, including 14 in Italy.
Renzi said the instability in Libya was giving free reign to the traffickers, but he ruled out sending ground troops to Libya or a naval blockade, saying that would only provide a corridor for them.
Libya is a transit point for refugees fleeing conflict, repression and poverty in countries such as Eritrea, Niger, Syria, Iraq and Somalia, with increased instability there and improving weather prompting more people to attempt the dangerous crossing.
Fighting in Libya has escalated to its worst levels since the 2011 civil war that ended with the overthrow and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Malta and Italy are closest to the Libyan coast and have received the brunt of ships that carried 219,000 people from Africa to Europe last year. About 3,500 died or disappeared along the way, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement Sunday.
This year's death toll in the Mediterranean Sea is thought to have already surpassed 1,500 victims -- a spike from the same period last year. With the arrival of warmer weather, the number of people on smugglers' boats has risen sharply, with more than 11,000 people being rescued just this month.
Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU's border agency, said Monday that the recent tragedies show that Europe must do more to stop migration by people seeking to escape poverty.
Leggeri said Europe should accept people fleeing political persecution in their countries, but he adding that it should make clear that those who arrive seeking economic opportunity will be sent home.
"The message that must be conveyed is that people in need for protection, of course, must be accepted in Europe, in European Union," said Leggeri. "But people who are irregular migrants, they don't have any right to settle here and if they come illegally, what would happen is that they will be returned back to their country. So they would waste their money, be victims of traffickers, and anyway -- will be sent back to their country."
Leggeri said Europe should also send people back to counter the smugglers who lure them with promises of safe passage.
"If we can increase the number of return flights," he said, the information will spread and "this would show that the traffickers are liars and that it is not possible to reach so easily to the European Union for people who in fact are not asylum seekers."
Information for this article was contributed by Colleen Barry, Nicole Winfield, Elena Becatoros, Stephen Calleja, Lorne Cooke, Raf Casert, Trisha Thomas and Monika Scislowska of The Associated Press; and by Jim Yardley, Gaia Pianigiani, Dan Bilefsky, Niki Kitsantonis, David Kirkpatrick and Suliman Ali Zway of The New York Times.
A Section on 04/21/2015
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