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(Milan) - The European Union (EU) should act immediately to prevent further deaths at sea, Human Rights Watch said. As many as 700 migrants and asylum seekers are feared dead in a single shipwreck in the Mediterranean north of Libya on April 19, 2015, bringing the estimated death toll to over 1,000 in one week.

“The EU is standing by with arms crossed while hundreds die off its shores,” said Judith Sunderland, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These deaths might well have been prevented if the EU had launched a genuine search-and-rescue effort.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has said the emergency in the Mediterranean will be discussed at an EU foreign ministers’ meeting on April 20 in Luxembourg. Ministers should arrive prepared to commit the financial, technical, and political resources needed for a multi-country humanitarian effort to save lives at sea, Human Rights Watch said.

The migrant boat is reported to have capsized in the early morning hours of April 19. The Italian Coast Guard reported at midday local time on April 19 that 28 people had been rescued and 24 bodies recovered. The International Organization for Migration has said 40 people had been rescued. Italian as well as Maltese forces continue to search the area for survivors. Merchant vessels are also participating.

After the October 2013 tragedy in which more than 360 people died off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy launched Mare Nostrum – a massive humanitarian naval operation in the Mediterranean credited with saving tens of thousands of lives. Ultimately unsustainable without more support from the rest of the EU, Italy ended Mare Nostrum in November 2014. The EU’s external borders agency, Frontex, implemented Operation Triton, with far fewer vessels, one-third of the budget, and a smaller geographic scope. The primary mandate of Frontex is border enforcement, not search and rescue.

The European Commission today issued a statement saying the only way to deal with boat migration is to address root causes, but said nothing about search and rescue. Since many people are fleeing countries where their lives and rights are at risk, the EU’s immediate priority should be saving lives at sea and respecting its international legal obligation not to send migrants back to places where they face threats to life or freedom, Human Rights Watch said.

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