After hundreds of migrants trying to reach Italy drowned last Sunday when their rickety vessel capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, it's no longer possible to ignore the humanitarian disaster unfolding on Europe's southern flank. This year at least 900 refugees from Africa and the Middle East have perished at sea while attempting the dangerous crossing from Libya to Europe, and with summer coming that number is bound to increase. These are terrified, desperate people fleeing war, poverty and violent social upheaval in what is left of their home countries. They urgently need help from the international community, and the European Union has a moral and ethical duty to aid them despite growing anti-immigrant sentiment on the continent.
The E.U. must summon the courage to act decisively rather than continuing to pretend the crisis doesn't exist. On Monday, the organization took its first tentative steps toward acknowledging the dimensions of the problem when it announced a 10-point proposal aimed at managing the flow of refugees and restarting joint search and rescue operations that were suspended last year. The matter is expected to be taken up by European leaders Thursday at an emergency summit on the issue, and we hope they resolve to take even stronger measures than they're currently considering, which likely wouldn't be enough to slow the waves of migrants.
Libya has become a major staging ground for refugees seeking to enter Europe because of its proximity to Italy, and E.U. officials estimate as many as a million people have converged there awaiting transport across the Mediterranean. There they are easy prey for smugglers, human traffickers, criminal gangs and terrorist groups that charge up to $1,000 per person for passage, then cram hundreds of men, women and children onto overloaded, unseaworthy vessels to travel hundreds of miles across open water to reach Italian or Greek territory.
Conditions aboard the boats, often wooden fishing vessels operated by inexperienced crews, are wretched, and the treatment of the refugees is even worse. Migrants who survived the journey have described being stranded on disabled vessels for days at sea without food or water and of witnessing people brutally assaulted and killed by crew members or fellow passengers, who then threw the bodies overboard. The reckless smugglers who profit handsomely from their miserable human cargoes care nothing for their victims' comfort or safety. In Sunday's disaster the more than 700 people who reportedly drowned did so because crew members had locked them in a cargo hold below decks before the boat capsized.
Until last year, the waters between Libya and Europe were patrolled by a joint E.U. naval force that rescued thousands of migrants trying to make the crossing. But that effort was abandoned under pressure from domestic anti-immigrant parties. It was replaced by a smaller naval presence with a third of its predecessor's budget that nevertheless managed to save hundreds of people within Italy's territorial waters. Among the proposals European leaders will consider this week is a plan to double the budget of that force, but even if that happens search and rescue operations will still have significantly fewer resources to work with than previously. Meanwhile the number of refugees setting out from Libya alone could more than double the 170,000 people who sought refuge in Europe last year.
The mood in Europe has soured against immigrants in recent years, especially against those from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, who are often viewed with suspicion and fear by their hosts. The fact that most of them are fleeing failed states governed by criminal dictatorships and bloodthirsty terrorist organizations guilty of some of the worst human rights abuses on the planet is glossed over with appeals to casual racism and xenophobia. But Europe's leaders must realize they can't continue to pretend that the crisis on their doorstep doesn't exist. The sooner they begin acting on that knowledge the better.