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Over 880 women, men, and children are feared drowned in the Mediterranean last week. While smugglers bear direct responsibility for sending overcrowded and unseaworthy boats from the coast of Libya and elsewhere, European governments share moral and political responsibility for failing to do more to prevent these horrific deaths.

Migrants are seen on a capsizing boat before a rescue operation by Italian navy ships "Bettica" and "Bergamini" off the coast of Libya in this handout picture released by the Italian Marina Militare on May 25, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

Those who drowned last week were first and foremost human beings. Regardless of whether they were escaping poverty or persecution in their home countries, none of them deserved to die. No matter their nationality, they deserve rescue, humane treatment, and an assessment of their individual circumstances including any refugee protection needs.

With an intense policy focus on preventing departures, European Union governments are not prioritizing saving lives. EU border agency Frontex and the EU’s naval mission, Operation Sophia, have ships in the central part of the Mediterranean, where most tragedies occur, but while they are involved in rescue operations, their primary mandates are border enforcement and countering smuggling. Instead, rescue operations are often left to the Italian Navy and Coast Guard, and nongovernmental organizations.

Partnering with Libya on migration control would be disastrous. Libya is a country ravaged by conflict with multiple armed groups, where migrants and asylum seekers face torture, overcrowding, dire sanitation conditions, and lack of access to medical care in migrant detention centers. Returning to or trapping people in detention centers in Libya would expose them to terrible harm, violate international and EU law, and undermine the EU’s global standing.

With slow progress on resettling refugees to the EU or providing other safe and legal routes, EU governments leave people with little choice but to risk their lives. Without greater EU, and other, assets focused on search and rescue in the central Mediterranean, hundreds more may die at sea this summer.

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