Dozens of people died on Friday when a boat carrying around 250 migrants capsized between Sicily and Tunisia, in the second such shipwreck this month, the Italian coast guard said.
Italian and Maltese naval vessels have recovered 34 bodies and rescued 206 people following the incident about 60 miles south of the tiny island of Lampedusa, the Italian navy said. The most seriously injured were being taken by helicopter to Lampedusa.
At least 339 people drowned Oct. 3 when a boat carrying Eritrean and Somali migrants sank near Lampedusa, southwest of Sicily.
Maltese authorities were co-ordinating the rescue operation, which was in international waters but in a Maltese rescue zone, and a Maltese ship was on the scene, a spokesman for the island state’s navy said. Italy reportedly sent two naval vessels and helicopters carrying inflatable life rafts.
“The operation is in progress. The navigational conditions are difficult, with strong wind,” a Maltese navy spokesman told Agence France-Presse.
The boat was spotted in difficulty by a Maltese military plane at around 10 a.m., 1400 GMT, which dropped a life raft.
“This is not just another wake-up call for Europe. This is the time for action,” Mr. Muscat said, adding he had spoken to Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta to discuss the latest disaster.
“This is a European problem, not a problem for Italy or Malta only.”
Italy is asking for more European Union support and an overhaul of the bloc’s immigration rules after last week’s shipwreck.
That disaster was one of the worst in a protracted migrant crisis in which tens of thousands of people have arrived in flimsy, overcrowded boats in southern Italy, and some vessels wrecked. Lampedusa, midway between Sicily and Tunisia, has borne the brunt.
The disaster has shown up the EU’s asylum policy, which has been criticized for being overly restrictive and forcing refugees to resort to desperate measures to reach Europe. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was heckled by activists and local residents when he visited Lampedusa on Tuesday. The remote island is Italy’s southernmost point and closer to the African continent than to the rest of the country.
EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstroem said she was following the rescue operations “with sadness and anxiety” and praised Italy and Malta for their swift response.
“These new horrible events are happening while we still have the shocking images of the tragedy in Lampedusa in our minds,” she said, adding that the latest disaster highlighted the need for expanded search and rescue operations “to better detect and assist boats in distress.”
The Commission has been urging EU states to pledge planes, ships and funds for EU border guard service Frontex, whose budget has been cut.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 32,000 have arrived in southern Italy and Malta this year alone, around two-thirds of whom have filed requests for asylum.
Earlier on Friday at least 500 more migrants in at least three separate boats arrived or were rescued on the way to different areas of Sicily.
Most migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa, but this year many are fleeing the civil war in Syria or political turmoil in Egypt and other parts of North Africa. Many are drawn by hopes of finding work in Europe and often do not stay in Italy.
Reuters, with a report from Agence France-Presse