Reggio Calabria (Italy) (AFP) - Rights groups lashed out at the EU on Wednesday for scrapping rescue operations in the Mediterranean, saying it had endangered the lives of thousands of desperate migrants making perilous journeys across the sea.
The criticism came as Italian coastguards said no more survivors had been found from a shipwreck off the coast of Libya on Sunday which may have killed 400 people.
"European governments' ongoing negligence towards the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean has contributed to a more than 50-fold increase in migrant and refugee deaths since the beginning of 2015," Amnesty International said.
"How many more people have to die before European governments acknowledge that relying on a patchwork quilt of resources for search-and-rescue operations is not enough?" the group's Gauri Van Gulik said.
The EU stopped funding Italy's Mare Nostrum rescue mission last year, in favour of the surveillance patrols currently being carried out by its border agency Frontex.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that Europe should do more to end the wars that led people to embark on the world's most deadly smuggling route.
Italian coastguard spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said that even before the latest sinking more than 500 migrants, many refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, had died so far this year trying to cross to Europe.
In a particularly tragic twist to Sunday's tragedy, the boat appears to have overturned because of the excitement caused by the sighting of rescuers.
Survivors who were brought to Italy told charity workers that as many as 400 others perished.
According to the International Organization for Migration, which has interviewed some of the survivors, between 500 and 550 people, many of them young, were crammed onto the vessel at the time.
The charity Save The Children said some were thought to be unaccompanied children.
- 6,500 migrants in two days -
Italian coastguards, who intercepted 42 boats on Sunday and Monday alone carrying 6,500 migrants attempting to make the hazardous crossing to Europe, confirmed that they had saved 145 people from the sunken boat and found nine bodies.
Coastguard spokesman Commander Filippo Marini told AFP they had not found any more "survivors or anything else which would indicate more victims".
He said he could not exclude that more lives had been lost, and said the kind of vessel from which the 145 were rescued usually carried many more people. Search operations were continuing in the area Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch researcher Judith Sunderland said: "The intolerable number of victims is only going to grow if the EU does not guarantee rescue operations in the Mediterranean."
- 'A global issue' -
Without mentioning maritime rescue efforts, the EU's Mogherini said: "There are instruments the European Union has that can be used more and better."
She was referring to the Dublin Convention, which determines which EU state should be responsible for each refugee.
With conflict and crisis acting as "the root cause of people deciding to risk everything and travel", she also said rising unrest -- and lack of policing -- in Libya was contributing to the surge in people-smuggling to Europe's coastlines.
"The majority of the flow goes through Libya which means that the other... thing we have to do is try to solve the Libyan crisis," she said.
Calling for "more solidarity" among EU states in dealing with the influx, Mogherini said the surge was "a global issue that we cannot pretend not to see".
Italian authorities say more than 15,000 migrants have arrived so far in 2015. There were 15,000 in April alone last year and an average of 25,000 each month between June and September.
Italy is divided over what to do with refugees and migrants once they arrive on its soil.
The interior ministry has ordered regional prefects to find emergency housing for 6,500 migrants -- a move condemned by the opposition, which argues the policy of rescuing immigrants encourages others to attempt the risky sea journey.
Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant Northern League, on Tuesday urged local officials not to cooperate.
Yet on the Libyan coast Wednesday, a group of 260 African
migrants were detained by the Libyan navy as they tried to make the same crossing to Italy.
"I wanted to go to Europe because the situation in Somalia is so difficult what with the civil war. But I got arrested," said Abdel Rashid, a Somali.