, ROME, Apr 22 – European Union leaders head into a summit on the Mediterranean migrant crisis on Thursday under pressure to act after survivors laid bare the full horror of last weekend’s catastrophic shipwreck.
Allegations of callous disregard for African, Asian and Arab lives are pushing Europe’s bosses to come up with a concrete response to a disaster in which 800 people are feared to have died off Libya.
The vast majority of those on board were locked in the hold or the middle deck of the 20 metre (66 foot) boat when it capsized in the early hours of Sunday following a collision with a Portuguese cargo ship responding to its distress signal.
Only 28 survivors and 24 bodies were recovered and the lucky few say there were hundreds on board, spread over three levels.
“Those who had the least money were stuffed into the hold at the bottom, and locked inside,” according to a Bangladeshi teenager identified as Abdirizzak.
When the first collision happened in pitch darkness, scenes of pure terror ensued, he told Italy’s Corriere della Sera.
“Everyone was screaming, pushing, punching, elbowing terrified. From below we could hear those who were locked in shouting ‘Help, Help!’
“I don’t know how but somehow we managed to swim outside just in time before the boat went down.”
Another Bangladeshi survivor said the migrant boat had hit the Portuguese container ship three times.
“People panicked they all ran to the other side of the deck. That’s what tipped us over,” 17 year old Riajul was quoted as saying by Britain’s The Daily Telegraph.
“Most of the other migrants were African and they didn’t know how to swim. I did and that’s why I survived.
Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania said they had asked a judge to charge the boat’s Tunisian captain with illegal confinement as well as culpable homicide, causing a shipwreck and aiding illegal immigration.
The skipper, Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, is alleged to have been drinking and smoking hashish while steering the boat. Crew member and Syrian national Mahmud Bikhit, 25, is also in custody. A judge has until Friday to make a decision on formal charges.
The exact number and breakdown of the victims may never be known as the wreck sank in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean.
On a day when a further 1,106 migrants landed on Italy’s shores after being picked up at sea by the coastguard, parliament observed a one-minute silence in memory of Sunday’s disaster.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi urged the EU and the UN to set up operations in African countries south of Libya to help stem the flow of migrants heading for Europe.
“We have to go to the root (of the problem) and discourage these men and women from leaving their countries,” Renzi said, naming Niger and Sudan as states where the EU could intervene in collaboration with UN agencies.
“Fighting people trafficking means fighting the slave traders of the 21st century. It is not only a question of security and terrorism it is about human dignity,” Renzi told deputies.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann has said the EU should be looking at building massive refugee camps in North Africa to shelter would be migrants and refugees.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is reportedly ready to offer the services of a Royal Navy warship which could seek to prevent migrant boats from leaving Libya. But experts question whether such action, modelled on Australia’s approach to its migrant crisis, could be done without UN authorisation.
EU governments have already agreed to double the resources available to a maritime border patrol mission, but that has been attacked as too little, too late by refugee and rights groups.
Sunday’s disaster was the worst in a series of migrant shipwrecks that have claimed more than 1,750 lives this year 30 times higher than the same period in 2014 and nearly 5,000 since the start of last year.
If current trends continue, there could be 30,000 deaths at sea this year and Italy will have to process 200,000 migrants landing on its soil, according to projections by aid groups.
Italian officials believe there could be up to one million refugees from Syria, Eritrea and sub-Saharan Africa already in Libya hoping to board boats.
Other ideas up for discussion at the summit on Thursday include trying to capture or destroy people smuggling boats and a pilot scheme for the fast track return of migrants to their home countries.