The merciless and cold-hearted strategy of Libya's human traffickers was highlighted again on Monday, when two boats carrying 450 people sent distress signals from an area not far from the spot where about 700 migrants died Sunday in the Mediterranean's biggest mass drowning since the Second World War.
Another shipwreck on Monday, this one off the Greek island of Rhodes in the southeast Aegean Sea, claimed three lives, one of them a child. The Greek Coast Guard and residents of Rhodes saved 93 of the passengers, many of whom clung to the floating wreckage of the wooden boat that had smashed against the island's shoals near a popular resort.
(Explainer: How Europe's migrant crisis got this bad)
Meanwhile, off the coast of Libya, Italy and Malta were working to rescue another two migrant boats with around 400 people.
The continuing tragedy galvanized Europe's leaders and ministers on Monday, none more so than Matteo Renzi, the Prime Minister of Italy, the country that is bearing the brunt of the migrant crossings and rescue efforts. In a press conference in Rome with his Maltese counterpart, Joseph Muscat, at his side, he made an emotional plea to fight the traffickers who are turning the Mediterranean into a graveyard.
"We are in the presence of a criminal organization that is making a lot of money but mostly is ruining many human lives," Mr. Renzi said. "Twenty years ago, we closed our eyes, along with Europe, when faced with Srebrenica. We cannot close our eyes again."
Mr. Renzi was referring to one of the ugliest massacres of the Bosnian War. So far this year, about 1,600 migrants have perished in attempted Mediterranean boat crossings, mostly from Libya, where human traffickers and smugglers are thriving.
Depending on the outcome of the two rescue attempts underway on Monday, and the final estimate for Sunday's disaster, the number could rise substantially. One of the 27 survivors from the Sunday sinking, who was taken to the Sicilian port of Catania, told investigators that 900 or more passengers were stuffed into the clapped-out, 20-metre vessel. The figure was not confirmed by Monday evening.
One of the Italian rescuers, Vincenzo Bonomo, told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper: "It was a sight that broke the hearts of even men of the sea like us. I saw children's shoes, clothing, backpacks floating in the water. Every time we saw a shoe or a bag, any sign of life, we thought we might have found a survivor. But every time we were disappointed. … We didn't find a single survivor, not one."
Prosecutors said Tuesday they have arrested the Tunisian captain and a Syrian crew member of the boat that sank Sunday. They were arrested aboard the rescue boat that brought survivors from the shipwreck to Sicily.
Sunday's mass drowning came as a shock to European Union leaders, most of whom were gambling that the end of Italy's extensive Mare Nostrum patrol and rescue operation in November, and its replacement with the EU's much smaller Triton operation, would not result in more deaths. (About 3,400 migrants perished in 2014). Several EU countries, among them Britain, had argued that Mare Nostrum, because of its size, only encouraged traffickers and lured migrants and should therefore be shut down. It appears the thinking was excessively optimistic.
At a meeting Monday in Luxembourg, the European Commission (EC), backed by the EU's foreign and interior ministers, came up with a 10-point plan to stem the crisis. It will be followed by a meeting of EU leaders on Thursday in Brussels.
Still, the attempt to forge consensus on an aggressive plan to save migrants' lives and stop the Libyan traffickers will be hard won, given concerns about costs as well as rising anti-immigrant sentiment in some countries. Among other efforts, the EC plan calls for the reinforcement of the Triton maritime patrols; the destruction of vessels used by the traffickers and smugglers; the deployment of EU immigration officers abroad to gather intelligence on migrants' travel patterns; and a plan by EU border patrol and law-enforcement agencies to investigate the operations of the traffickers and track their funds.
Cracking down on the traffickers and smugglers will not be easy. Mark Micallef, chief reporter of the Times of Malta, who has interviewed what he calls "smugglers who were far down on the food chain," said the traffickers in Libya are powerful and well established, especially in the region west of the capital, Tripoli. "What I know is that even the UN agencies don't have any real knowledge of the smuggling network," he said in an interview. "I know the traffickers control entire areas of Libya and some of them have heavy weaponry, even anti-tank guns."
Othman Belbeisi, the Libya station chief for the International Organization for Migration, who is temporarily based in Tunisia, agreed that tackling the traffickers will be exceedingly difficult. In an interview Monday, he said there is little desire and capability to shut them down in a country that lacks a working government and security forces.
"The number of smugglers and traffickers has increased substantially recently," he said. "That's because it is less risky for them now. There is almost no law enforcement in Libya at this time. Plus the smugglers are better armed than the police, so what are the police going to do?"
Mr. Belbeisi said Libya has always been a centre for smuggling and trafficking, but that it was tightly controlled during the Moammar Gadhafi era, which ended with Colonel Gadhafi's killing during the Libyan civil war in late 2011. "Gadhafi had control over the tribal leaders," Mr. Belbeisi said. "He would decide how many migrants would go to Europe."
He doubts the EU will have much success in destroying the boats used by the traffickers in Libya, many of which are inflatable rubber rafts that are light and can be hidden quickly. He also said that many Libyans support the traffickers, especially along the country's vast, open southern borders with Chad and Niger, where smuggling, or co-operating with smugglers, is proving more lucrative than agriculture.
"Unless you criminalize trafficking, then send them to court and to prison, it will continue to operate," he said. "With Libya the way it is, it will definitely be a challenge to stop them."
With a report from Associated Press