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Armed Forces of Malta personnel carry the body of a dead Libyan immigrant into a hearse after disembarking from an Italian coastguard ship in Malta.

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

For many, the Mediterranean conjures bright images of cruise ships ferrying comfortable passengers past sun-drenched islands. But for hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants fleeing misery, mayhem and murder in Africa and the Middle East, the Mediterranean stands for extreme risk. And, increasingly, for death.

Thousands have drowned attempting the dangerous crossing to Italian and Greek shores in rickety boats and rafts. The latest catastrophe ought to be the wake-up call the international community needs to respond forcefully to a rapidly worsening crisis.

Hundreds of migrants drowned on Saturday night when a small, overcrowded vessel sank off the coast of Libya. The hapless victims had been trying to reach Italy's Lampedusa Island, about 300 kilometres from the Libyan coast.

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It was the worst such incident since a trickle of illegal refugees turned into a torrent in late 2010. But even before this sinking, the sea had claimed about 300 victims a month in 2015. While rescue ships continued the search for survivors – fewer than 30, so far – distress calls arrived from two other vessels loaded with migrants, including an inflatable raft believed to be carrying more than 100 people.

Italian government figures put the number of migrants arriving by sea so far this year at 23,566, a 13-per-cent increase from a year earlier. But the number of deaths is nearly 10 times higher.

One reason, apart from the greed of the smugglers, has been the drastic cutback of a unilateral Italian naval mission that rescued more than 100,000 people last year. The costly program was replaced this year by a narrower mission run by the European Union's border control agency, with about one-third the budget.

For too long, the European Union has been reluctant to act forcefully to safeguard the migrants or crack down on the smugglers, who have flourished in lawless Libya. But with hundreds of thousands of people still trying to get out of Libya, Syria and other collapsed states, it's not a crisis that will simply go away if it's ignored.

At an emergency meeting Monday, EU interior ministers agreed to expand the rescue effort, destroy the smugglers' vessels and provide more money to resettle migrants. That's a start. But until the migrants feel safer in their own land, they will continue risking their lives at sea.

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