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EU Holds Emergency Meeting After Migrant Boat Capsizes; Hundreds Feared Dead

An Italian coast guard vessel took part in a large search and rescue operation Sunday after a boat carrying migrants capsized overnight.
Reuters /Landov
An Italian coast guard vessel took part in a large search and rescue operation Sunday after a boat carrying migrants capsized overnight.

The European Union is holding an emergency meeting Monday about the deadly capsizing of a boat crowded with would-be migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. With 28 survivors reported and 24 bodies recovered, only a fraction of the hundreds of people who were reportedly on board are accounted for.

The boat was about 120 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa when it capsized this weekend; it was roughly 60 miles from Libya. Estimates of the number of people who were on the 65-foot craft range from 700 to 950. The boat reportedly capsized after many of its passengers rushed to the same side.

From Rome, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports:

"One survivor says there were 950 people on board, many locked in the hold by the human traffickers before departure. But Italian authorities say they cannot confirm the numbers on board.

"Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has long been seeking more help and resources from Italy's European partners, has called for an emergency meeting of EU government leaders."

Monday's EU meeting in Luxembourg comes as some 1,500 migrants are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year; more than 10,000 have been rescued. The foreign ministers' discussions are sure to center on who will bear responsibility for patrolling immigration routes and helping those in danger. The EU has run one such program since last fall, when Italy discontinued its larger operation.

This weekend's disaster stands to eclipse a similar event late in 2013, when 500 migrants had crammed onto a boat that caught fire and sank near Sicily. Officials estimated that up to 300 people died.

"We've had 1 1/2 years now to talk about that and discuss that — and plan for that," says the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights' Laurens Jolles. "And only now we hear the EU and governments are all starting to discuss that and say, 'It's unacceptable, we have to do something.' "

Many of the smuggling boats have launched from Libya, fueled by a combination of upheaval and a lack of border controls. The passengers are often from a range of North African countries.

"The disaster comes only a week after 400 others were reported dead in a similar capsize near Lampedusa," as Scott wrote for The Two-Way Sunday.

For a sign of the state of things in Libya, consider that a newspaper headline on Sunday touted the pending return of roadway traffic lights in Benghazi.

"We have what is possibly becoming a failed state at our doorstep. We have criminal gangs having a heyday organizing these trips in rickety boats," Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tells the BBC. "We need to get the Libyan factions together to form some sort of government of almost national unity."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.