As EU foreign ministers prepare to meet on Thursday at an extraordinary council summit to find a solution to the Mediterranean refugee crisis, human rights campaigners Amnesty International have revealed shocking details about the plight of migrants attempting to enter Europe by sea.
Since the beginning of the year, nearly 1500 have died trying to reach Europe through the Mediterranean. Until November last year, Italy's Mare Nostrum operation carried out search and rescue missions, but it was replaced in November by Frontex operation Triton.
The move was heavily criticised by MEPs and NGOs alike as Triton receives far less funding - around €2.9m a month, compared to Mare Nostrum's €9.5m - and has less equipment at its disposal. Now, search and rescue missions depend on coast guards and commercial ships and national contributions to Triton are not mandatory.
For representatives of shipping industry associations*, "it is unacceptable that the international community is increasingly relying on merchant ships and seafarers to undertake more and more large-scale rescues, with single ships having to rescue as many as 500 people at a time".
The industry has become so overwhelmed by the situation that, according to the United Nations human rights council, "as a result of the heavy financial losses incurred with search and rescue operations, shipping companies have started to re-route to avoid areas of heavy migrants' boats traffic".
Amnesty International estimates that since the beginning of the year, there has been a 50-fold increase in refugee deaths in the Mediterranean. In its latest report on the issue, the organisation says that "the gap in search and rescue resources left by Mare Nostrum and not filled by Triton is likely to have contributed to loss of life", explaining that "refugee and migrants' boats could have been spotted and assisted earlier, had more numerous assets been deployed".
The report contains harrowing testimony from survivors, such as Jean from the Ivory Coast, who said, "the smugglers were armed. Some of us were scared and did not want to go, but nobody could turn back. They gave us no maps, nothing. They just said, 'go straight ahead and that's Italy'".
Amnesty International highlights that one group travelling from Libya last January "had no telephones, water or food, and no life jackets. They were packed so tightly in their small inflatable dinghy that they could not sit or lie down to sleep".
Eventually, they ran out of fuel and their boat started filling up with water. It "had been drifting for around eight days before a fishing boat spotted them some 2.5 nautical miles east of Maltese shores", says the report. On this particular trip, out of 122 people, up to 34 died at sea.
Mare Nostrum was suspended in an effort to discourage migrants from attempting the crossing of the Mediterranean - the deadliest in the world - but Amnesty International points out that "the first two months of 2015 saw a 42 per cent increase in irregular border crossings through the central Mediterranean". So far this year, over 21,000 people have arrived in Italy.
EU foreign ministers are set to hold emergency talks on Thursday as they scramble to find a solution to the mounting death toll. Ahead of the meeting, the chairs of parliament's EPP, S&D and ALDE groups have issued their recommendations.
They have stressed that, "Frontex must be able to operate in high seas - which is not the case with the current Triton operation, but was the case for Mare Nostrum". They added that, "member states must show greater solidarity by providing ships and human resources for search and rescue operations".
Parliament's three largest political groups have also called for "a binding mechanism for solidarity, increased use of humanitarian visas, an emergency relocation mechanism and the possible triggering of the temporary protection directive".
And, they have urged EU governments to "ensure that their authorities work closely with Europol, Frontex, the European asylum support office and Eurojust to fight against human traffickers and criminal networks of migrant smugglers and to detect and trace their funding".
Lastly, they underlined that, "consideration should be given as to how asylum applications can be dealt with more quickly, including examining the feasibility of processing asylum applications in third countries".
The stakes for this week's discussions are high, with Amnesty International saying, "the choice European governments are facing is a stark life and death one".
*European community shipowners' associations, European transport workers' federation, international chamber of shipping