On the dock in Port Augusta, Sicily, weary sub-Saharan migrants await an initial health screening after three days at sea. (September 2014)

(Milan) – Reports of 400 lives lost in the Mediterranean between April 11-13, 2015, should force the European Union to implement a vast search-and-rescue operation, Human Rights Watch said today. Eleven bodies have been recovered so far from one confirmed shipwreck over the past few days.

“If the reports are confirmed, this past weekend would be among the deadliest few days in the world’s most dangerous stretch of water for migrants and asylum seekers,” said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the unbearable number of lives lost at sea will only grow if the EU doesn’t act now to ensure search-and-rescue operations across the Mediterranean.”

Save the Children Italy estimated that 400 people died last weekend trying to cross to Europe, based on testimonies the group collected among the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers rescued by the Italian Coast Guard since April 10. Official figures indicate that more than 7,000 people were rescued between April 10 and 13. Save the Children said around 450 of them were children, of whom 317 were unaccompanied by an adult.

Many of those rescued over the weekend remain on Italian vessels as authorities scramble to find emergency accommodation. Human Rights Watch said the lack of preparation for arrivals was entirely preventable because many predicted 2015 would be a record year for boat migration.

The toxic political rhetoric around immigration in Italy and the EU is another obstacle. On April 14, the leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League called on all local authorities to resist “by any means” requests to accommodate asylum seekers, and said his party was ready to occupy buildings to prevent arrivals. Other EU countries have shown a distinct lack of political will to help alleviate Italy’s unfair share of the responsibility, Human Rights Watch said.

The EU external border agency, Frontex, launched Operation Triton in the Mediterranean in November 2014, as Italy downsized its massive humanitarian naval operation, Mare Nostrum, credited with saving tens of thousands of lives. Triton’s geographic scope and budget is far more limited than Mare Nostrum, and the primary mandate of Frontex is border control, not search and rescue.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as many as 500 migrants and asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean in 2015, a 30-fold increase over recorded deaths in the same period in 2014. If reports of hundreds more dead over the past few days are confirmed, the death toll in just over three months would be nearly 1,000 people. The death toll for all of 2014 was at least 3,200 people. The numbers are likely to rise as more migrants take to the seas during the traditional crossing season in the spring and summer months.

The European Commission is to present a “comprehensive migration agenda” to EU member states in May. Some of the proposals, while cloaked in humanitarian rhetoric about preventing deaths at sea, raise serious human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said. These include setting up offshore processing centers in North African countries, outsourcing border control and rescue operations in order to prevent departures, and increasing financial assistance to deeply repressive countries like Eritrea, one of the key countries of origin for asylum seekers attempting the sea crossing, without evidence of human rights reforms.

While some proposals contain elements that could potentially address root causes of irregular migration or provide safe alternatives for migrants, the proof of their success will rest on whether they respect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, rather than simply stop the flow. Early signs of intent suggest that rather than building the capacity to protect, the emphasis will be on enhancing and outsourcing containment mechanisms to prevent departures.

“It’s hard not to see these proposals as cynical bids to limit the numbers of migrants and asylum seekers making it to EU shores,” Sunderland said. “Whatever longer term initiatives may come forth, the immediate humanitarian imperative for the EU is to get out there and save lives.”