As many as 700 migrants trying to reach a better life in Europe are feared dead as their boat capsized overnight off the Libyan coast.
Authorities said Sunday 28 people have been rescued and 24 bodies recovered, but hundreds are missing in what could become the worst known Mediterranean migrant sea disaster.
The boat capsized 193 kilometers south of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, when it is believed migrants moved to one side of the vessel as a merchant ship approached.
European leaders called for immediate action to resolve the migrant crisis as thousands of people from Africa and the Mideast attempt to flee poverty, war and unsettled political turmoil on unsafe, jammed boats crossing the Mediterranean, often north to Italy.
“We have said too many times, never again,'” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, an Italian, said in a statement. “Now is time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay.”
French President Francois Hollande said officials must fight the human smuggling leading to the Mediterranean disasters that left 4,000 people dead last year in their attempt to reach Europe.
“Those who put people on these boats are smugglers,” said Hollande. “They are even terrorists, because they know perfectly well that these boats are unsafe and that they will destroy the boats in the middle of the sea and put hundreds of people at risk to their lives.”
In his weekly address to thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis called on the international community to prevent more migrant disasters.
“They are men and women like us,” said the pontiff. “Brothers pursuing a better life, hungry, persecuted, hurt, exploited, victims of war. They are looking for a better life. They were pursuing happiness. I invite you to pray in silence, all together, for these brothers and sisters.”
Thousands of migrants – most from war-ravaged areas of Africa and the Middle East – make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in hopes of reaching Europe. Before the most recent incident, humanitarian groups had estimated around 500 had died this year as a result of hunger, thirst and exposure in overcrowded and poorly equipped vessels.
Following a meeting Saturday with Italian President Sergio Mattarella before the latest disaster, the pontiff said it was clear that the scope of the migrant issue required much greater international involvement. He also expressed his gratitude to Italy for “welcoming” the migrants who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.
On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama and visiting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi discussed the problem of migrants during their talks in Washington. Renzi said Italy did not want the Mediterranean Sea to become a cemetery and has already taken a leadership role to confront the humanitarian crisis. The Italian leader also said it was the responsibility of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East to stop human trafficking in close cooperation with the United Nations.
President Obama said countries in the region needed to coordinate political action to counter terrorism and prevent Libya from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
European Union officials say the flow of migrants is likely to increase in coming months as the weather gets warmer.