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Migrant boat captain held on death charge

Storyline:National News

A charge of reckless multiple homicide has been made against the captain of the boat that capsized off Libya on Sunday killing around 800 migrants. The 27-year-old Tunisian has been charged alongside a surviving member of the crew, a 25-year-old Syrian. The pair were both charged with people trafficking as the EU announced emergency proposals in a bid to prevent more drownings, after Sunday’s tragedy claimed the lives of around 800 people including children trapped below deck. Only 27 people survived the disaster and were brought to Sicily late on Monday where the captain, Mohammed Alì Malek, and crew member Mahmud Bikhit were arrested by the Italian authorities. Earlier reports had put the death toll at around 700 people but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy, Carlotta Sami, confirmed yesterday that it was at least 800. “There were Syrians, about 150 Eritreans, Somalians … They had left Tripoli at about 8am on Saturday,” she said. Italian Red Cross chief Francesco Rocca said the survivors were “completely shocked”. Some had managed to stay alive by clinging to bodies in the water. Hundreds of passengers, many of them children, had been locked below deck in the three-tier boat and were trapped when the vessel capsized, according to the survivors. “Some of them want to speak, some of them want to stay silent. You can imagine they are under a lot of pressure. It’s the first time I’ve seen such a high level of shock. It’s clear from their eyes,” said Rocca. Some survivors have claimed the tragedy happened after a collision with a Portuguese commercial vessel although this has been denied by the ship’s captain. The latest drowning disaster has highlighted the growing humanitarian crisis in the region which the Pope has said is in danger of turning the Mediterranean into a “vast cemetery”. In the first quarter of this year alone, 1,800 people have drowned including some from a fragile wooden boat that ran aground off the Greek island of Rhodes just after Sunday’s disaster. Two men, both Syrians, now face charges of trafficking people to Greece and charges linked to the deaths of at least three passengers, including one child, on board the ill-fated vessel which was carrying around 80 migrants. Italian and Maltese ships were involved in another rescue on Monday when two migrant vessels carrying around 450 people got into trouble just off the Libyan coast. At least 20 people are feared drowned. The Italian coastguard said later that it had been involved in six different rescue operations on Monday alone, saving 638 migrants. Another rescue had to be made yesterday when a migrant vessel was spotted in trouble near the south of Calabria. The latest disasters have intensified Italian anger over the crisis with many believing the rest of Europe is ignoring the problem. Around 21,000 migrants, mostly from Syria, Somalia and Eritrea, have reached the Italian coast already this year and reception centres in the country are struggling to cope. Last year, around 219,000 migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean with around 3,500 losing their lives according to the UN refugee agency UNCHR. Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi has compared the smugglings to the African slave trade as well as the Srebrenica massacre when Bosnian Muslims who were supposed to be under international protection were slaughtered. “Twenty years ago, we and Europe closed our eyes to Srebrenica. Today it’s not possible to close our eyes again and only commemorate these events later,” an agitated Renzi told a press conference this week. In Sicily, where tents were set up to provide medical help for Sunday’s survivors, around 50 activists gathered, shouting: “European asylum for refugees”, “Stop Fortress Europe, stop the disasters”, “No borders, no nation, stop deportation” and “Emigration is not a crime”. AN emergency EU summit is to be held tomorrow to address the crisis. A provisional 10-point plan drawn up by EU officials in Luxembourg on Monday will be the basis of the summit. The proposed preventative measures include an expansion of the much-criticised EU Mediterranean rescue service that recently replaced the better funded and far more efficient Italian service which covered three times the area of its replacement and saved 100,000 people in just one year. The EU proposals are to double the size of the rescue operations as well as provide more funds for the EU’s border agency, Frontex. It is also proposed to intensify the battle against people smugglers, unify migration policies and streamline the currently lengthy and difficult process for asylum. Whether the proposals will be agreed tomorrow is debatable as member states are struggling with strained finances and also face opposition to immigration from far-right parties. Former UK Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has called for people smugglers to be targeted, possibly by using armed force to destroy their boats before they leave North Africa. The former Royal Marine said: “It is unsustainable and unacceptable to have a policy of drowning refugees when we should be attacking the smugglers. “We should be helping countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, the departing nations, to attack people smugglers. “There may also be a case for using special forces of interdiction to destroy the boats before they leave port.” However, EU officials believe it would be nearly impossible to close down the migratory routes and refugee charities believe that only more legal routes into the EU can alleviate the crisis. The Refugee Council also want a much wider application of family reunification laws so that it is easier for people to bring over parents, cousins or siblings.