Maritime Disaster

04.20.15 9:15 AM ET

Can Europe Stop Migrants’ Drowning?

The death toll from the ship that capsized in the Mediterranean could hit 900, as beleaguered cargo-trade ship owners urge the EU to boost search-and-rescue efforts.

The Mediterranean Sea has only given up 24 bodies from a migrant ship that capsized Saturday night with an estimated 950 people on board. Only 28 people survived the disaster, which happened when a Portuguese merchant vessel called the King Jacob approached and the migrants aboard panicked and rushed to one side of the vessel, no doubt hoping to be saved. Survivors reported that hundreds of people, including women and children, had been locked in the lower compartments of the ship in an attempt to keep the weight balanced.

The King Jacob is a cargo ship that generally carries hazardous materials. It is not a rescue vessel and the crew is not specially trained in sea rescue or migrant management. The King Jacob was called to respond to the migrant ship because the Italian Coast Guard didn’t have any of its own vessels close by when the distress call came in. Had the Coast Guard been the first responder, more lives might have been saved. Instead, fishermen in the area who arrived to help the King Jacob crew reported picking up bodies floating in the oil slicks from the sunken ship. One fisherman told reporters in Sicily that he used a fishing net to scoop up a 15-year-old boy floating in the water.

Since Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue program ended in November of last year with a budget of €9 million ($9.7 million), there has been a 40 percent increase in the use of private merchant vessels to rescue ships in distress. The European Union’s Frontex border control program Triton, which runs on a budget of €2.9 million ($3.1 million) a month and relies on member-countries’ assets, only has one vessel in the waters right now. Maritime law dictates that every vessel must respond to a maritime distress call whether they have rescue equipment or not.

Several merchant ship cooperatives representing the cargo trade in the Mediterranean have signed a petition urging the European Union to send more rescue vessels to patrol the waters. “The shipowner groups and unions are calling on all EU Member States to give immediate priority to increasing resources for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, in view of the very large number of potentially dangerous rescues now being conducted by merchant ships, a situation they believe is becoming untenable,” according to a statement from the joint group. “The shipping industry fully accepts its legal responsibility to rescue anyone in distress at sea, but argues it is unacceptable that the international community is increasingly relying on merchant ships and their crews to undertake more and more large-scale rescues. Single ships have had to rescue as many as 500 people at a time, creating serious risks to the health and welfare of seafarers who should not be expected to deal which such situations.”

On Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called an emergency cabinet meeting in response to the most recent disaster and the arrival of more than 11,000 people from Libya over a 10-day period. “Italy is acting upon this and maybe sometimes we are working on our own because sometimes we are kind of isolated,” he said during a press conference after the emergency meeting. “Our work is extremely important. The real issue is a political issue. We’re talking about human dignity. We have to halt human trafficking. These people cannot believe that Europe is not acting upon such a big phenomena. We have to stay united.”  

Italy, in fact, is very much alone on the front line of what is turning into a major migrant crisis. More than 3,000 people died making the voyage from North Africa to Italy in 2014. If the numbers from this weekend’s disaster prove to be true, more than 1,500 people will have lost their lives in the last week alone. Italy takes all of the migrant deaths that happen in the waters patrolled by its Coast Guard and Navy seriously. “We have said too many times ‘Never again,’” Federica Mogherini, an Italian who is head of the European Union’s top representative for foreign affairs and security, said on Sunday. “Now is time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay. 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.”

Getting Europe to agree on a problem each country sees differently is almost impossible. On Monday, European foreign ministers will meet in Luxembourg to once again discuss the issue. Renzi and the prime minister of Malta have demanded an emergency summit on the matter.

There have been suggestions that sending a unified force of naval ships to turn back migrant vessels is the best solution, but the reality is that turning back a listing ship packed with hundreds of desperate refugees is not possible. Border control quickly becomes search and rescue.  

European leaders have agreed that stopping the human traffickers who ferry the migrants is a top priority. Italy arrested 976 traffickers in the last year alone, but the boats keep coming. On Monday, authorities in Sicily said they had identified several key traffickers in Palermo and are working to dismantle a network that apparently runs from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Libyan Coast. The police in Palermo say they even found a money trail worth “hundreds of thousands of euro.”

While Europe decides what to do and how best to stop the carnage, the ships keep coming and the rescuers keep saving lives and scooping bodies from the sea.