Denmark’s foreign minister called for more foreign aid, increased European help to Italy and a stronger effort to combat human smuggling after as many as 700 migrants were feared drowned Sunday after their packed boat capsized off Libya.
The weekend’s tragedy was described as the deadliest such disaster to date in the Mediterranean.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and Italy's coast guard said only 28 people had survived the wreck. Their testimonies suggested there had been about 700 people on board the 20-metre (70-foot) fishing boat, officials said.
"It seems we are looking at the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean," UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said.
Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard said European nations should take a multi-pronged approach to deal with the flow of migrants seeking to reach Europe, a topic he plans to discuss with his colleagues in the Foreign Affairs Council.
“The thing is, the more we do to rescue the refugees, the more floats and dinghies the human smugglers will set in the sea. Therefore there needs to be other efforts. First off, we need to do everything we can to prevent this refugee crisis. There should be more development aid – not less,” Lidegaard told Ritzau.
In addition to increasing foreign aid, Lidegaard said that EU nations need to answer Italy’s “cry for help”.
“The EU needs to assist Italy more than it currently does and that is something we are willing to look at,” he said.
The foreign minister said that Europe should also work with local authorities in northern Africa.
“There is a need to train law enforcement officials on the other side and ensure that they can carry out actions against the human smugglers,” Lidegaard said.
The refugees trying to reach Europe with the help of human smugglers are generally fleeing conflict or persecution in places such as Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria, or poverty and hunger in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Sunday’s tragedy is the latest in a growing catalogue of mass drownings of migrants attempting to reach the European Union on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats run by people smugglers who are able to operate out of Libya with impunity because of the chaos engulfing the north African state.
The most serious incident prior to Sunday occurred off Malta in September 2014. An estimated 500 migrants drowned in a shipwreck caused by traffickers deliberately ramming the boat in an attempt to force the people on board onto another, smaller vessel.
In October 2013, more than 360 Africans perished when the tiny fishing boat they were crammed onto caught fire within sight of the coast of Lampedusa.
That horrific tragedy was described at the time as a wake-up call to the world but 18 months later there is no sign of a let-up in the numbers attempting the perilous crossing in search of a better life in Europe.
The latest disaster comes after a week in which two other shipwrecks left an estimated 450 people dead.
If the worst fears about Sunday's tragedy are confirmed, it will take the death toll since the start of 2015 to more than 1,600 people.
Aid organisations are calling for the restoration of an Italian navy search-and-rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum which was suspended at the end of last year.
Italy scaled back the mission after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of nine million euros (67 million kroner, $9.7 million) per month amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.
Mare Nostrum has been partially replaced by a much smaller EU-run operation called Triton which has a fraction of the assets and manpower deployed by Italy.