As Italy last night absorbed the impact of yet another horrendous mass drowning of boat people, a grim thought crossed many minds. With perhaps as many as 700 drowned off the Libyan coast yesterday morning, this is clearly the worst tragedy yet in the Mediterranean's long-running migration crisis.
The worst so far – but is there even worse to come? With law and order at a point of near-total breakdown in divided Libya, is it possible, as Italian media reports have claimed in recent days, that there could be as many as 300,000 migrants in Libya ready to risk a crossing of the Mediterranean?
After yesterday's disaster, the European Union pledged to take bold and immediate action to tackle the continent's migration crisis. The issue is set to top the agenda when EU foreign ministers, including Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, gather in Luxembourg today for a scheduled meeting.
With the arrival of milder weather, the boat-people crisis has been gathering pace, with more than 12,000 people landing on Italy’s southern coasts in the last 10 days. Eight days ago, more than 400 people drowned when their boat sank just off the Libyan coast.
Yesterday’s tragedy was sickeningly similar to the tragedy eight days ago, with a heavily overcrowded fishing vessel with more than 750 on board overturning and sinking just 70km off the Libyan coast.
As in the past, the tragedy involved a cruel element of poor seamanship on the part of the unwitting boat people.
When the Portuguese merchant ship the King Jacob, alerted by the Italian coast guard, arrived at the boat, many of the desperate and frightened people moved over to one side of the craft, causing it to overturn and sink.
In the subsequent vast rescue operation, involving helicopters, navy, coast guard and merchant ships, some 50 people, who had been able to survive in the relatively warm waters, were rescued.
This latest tragedy will have serious political fallout, since it
suggests control of the Mediterranean, carried out by the EU Frontex border agency operation "Triton", is totally inadequate.
Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for UN refugee agency UNHCR, said an EU operation similar to the Italian-run Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue service which was disbanded at the end of last year is now urgently required. "The Frontex brief is not the saving of lives at sea," she said. "Frontex [Triton] does not have that purpose, that mandate nor indeed adequate resources . . ."
Commentators say that although the number attempting crossings is only slightly up on last year, the death toll has soared – more than 1,000 this year so far with just 17 for the same period last year.
In his Sunday Angelus homily in St Peter's Square, Pope Francis called for prayers for the victims, saying: "In sorrow, I call on the international community to act decisively and quickly in order to avoid similar such tragedies . . .
“These [boat] people are men and women like us, our brothers and sisters, hungry, persecuted, wounded, exploited, in search of a better life, in search of happiness . . . I invite you to pray in silence for all these brothers and sisters.”