Funerals were held on Thursday for refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean’s worst-ever migrant disaster as European leaders prepared to discuss measures to stem the flow of those risking their lives to reach the continent.
Ahead of emergency EU talks in Brussels on Thursday afternoon, 24 coffins containing the only bodies recovered from the weekend capsizing that left an estimated 900 dead were laid out for an interfaith memorial service on the grounds of Malta’s main hospital.
Wails from members of Malta’s African community punctuated the ceremony, which included Christian and Muslim prayers and was attended by Malta’s president and prime minister, Italy’s interior minister and the EU’s migration commissioner.
The ceremony was held as a leaked draft of the summit statement seen by the Guardian revealed resettlement places in Europe would be offered to just 5,000 refugees – dashing hopes of search and rescue operations being fully reinstated.
Human rights group Amnesty International said the EU summit proposals appear to be “illegal, impractical and immoral”.
Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, said: “Reinstating a proper search and rescue programme is not an afterthought, it’s the most urgent thing European leaders should be doing. As they scheme, men, women and children are drowning.
“In the face of the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war, the focus must be on the humanitarian emergency, not on plots to return people with asylum claims, to the very places from which they fled.”
A draft seen by the Associated Press pledges the 28 member states to “increase search and rescue possibilities” as well as to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, offered the Royal Navy flagship, HMS Bulwark, three helicopters and two border patrol vessels to support EU operations as he arrived for the summit on Thursday, but did not say if the ships would be used for search and rescue operations or an expanded border patrol along the Greek and Italian coasts.
He said those picked up by the ships would not have immediate recourse to claim asylum in the UK, but would be taken to the nearest safe country.
German army sources told the DPA news agency Berlin would offer to send the troop supply ship Berlin as well as frigates Karlsruhe and Hessen towards Italy. Belgium and Ireland each said they stood ready to commit a navy ship.
Speaking on arrival at the EU summit, German chancellor Angela Merkel said that Europe’s values and credibility in the rest of the world were on the line.
Italy shut down its search and rescue mission, Mare Nostrum – credited with saving the lives of more than 100,000 migrants – at the end of 2014 because other EU countries refused to pay for it. It was replaced with a smaller EU scheme – Triton – whose main focus is to patrol the bloc’s borders, after some countries argued that saving migrants encouraged more to come.
The International Organisation on Migration (IOM) fears that 2015 will be the deadliest year yet for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean as boats carrying desperate refugees become increasingly overloaded.
It said the number of arrivals in Europe is broadly the same but deaths are rising due to deteriorating conditions on board ships.
“More than 1,000 people died in less than 10 days and we are only at the start of the good season. It’s an emergency and it will get worse,” said Flavio Di Giacomo, an IOM spokesperson in Catania, where a vessel belonging to the Italian Guardia di Finanza on Thursday brought 220 migrants, including four pregnant women, into port.
Rescued migrants wait to disembark off the Italian Guardia di Finanza vessel Denaro at the Sicilian harbour of Catania. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Rescued migrants wait to disembark off the Italian Guardia di Finanza vessel Denaro at the Sicilian harbour of Catania. Photograph: Vincenzo Barbagallo/Demotix/Corbis
The migrants were rescued on Tuesday 40 miles north of Libya when their two dinghies started taking on water. Those who arrived in Catania told aid workers they were pushed onto the overcrowded boats. The IOM said the horrors faced by migrants waiting on Libyan beaches for departure, which include being beaten and raped by smugglers, were adding to the peril of the journeys.
“If the migrants are scared before boarding and refuse to travel, they are beaten by smugglers and forced to board,” Di Giacomo said. “Once you pay, there’s no going back. Boats are increasingly showing problems shortly after departure, when they are still in Libyan waters.”
3,200 migrants drowned in 2014 – the deadliest year to date – but 1,700 deaths had already been recorded so far in 2015, Di Giacomo said. “The top priority now is saving lives, from this evening, from tomorrow. This means reinforcing the life-saving mechanism. Similar to Mare Nostrum, but in a European context.”
According to figures published by a Rome newspaper on Thursday, the Italian interior ministry estimates that as many as 5,000 migrants a week could arrive in Italy by sea from north African ports in the next five months.
A ministry source confirmed the figures, which estimate that as many as 200,000 could arrive by the end of this year.
European leaders have been widely criticised since the decision last year to end the Italian navy operation. The UN reiterated the criticism on Thursday and urged the EU to do more. “The European Union response needs to go beyond the present minimalist approach … which focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on its shores,” it said in a statement.
Cameron has acknowledged that there has to be an extension of the search and rescue operations after they were scaled back but insisted in Brussels that other measures must follow too.
“What we are dealing with here is a real tragedy in the Mediterranean. Today’s meeting has to be about saving lives. Now saving lives means rescuing these poor people but also means smashing the gangs and stabilising the region,” he said.
“Britain, as ever, will help. We will use our aid budget to help stabilise neighbouring countries. As the country in Europe with the biggest defence budget we can make a real contribution. Of course it must be under the right conditions and that must include that people that we pick up are taken to the nearest safe country – most likely Italy – and do not have immediate recourse to claim asylum in the UK.”
The summit comes as a joint letter to EU leaders signed by more than 50 former European prime ministers, foreign ministers and business leaders, condemned the death toll of migrants in the Mediterranean as a “stain on the conscience of our continent”.
Signatories include the former EU commissioner and UK Conservative party chairman, Chris Patten, the former Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, French former foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and George Soros of the Open Society Foundation.
Patten said: “Today’s crisis summit must be clear on its first and most urgent priority, increasing search and rescue back to at least previous levels.
“Addressing the drivers of migration, from conflict to human trafficking, climate change to human rights abuses is also critically important but will take a longer term strategy to address. My message to EU leaders is clear – history will judge you harshly if you fudge this.”
Sunday’s capsizing off Libya was the Mediterranean’s worst migrant disaster with up to 900 dead.
An official list of the wreck’s 26 survivors, released by Italian authorities on Thursday, reflected the geographic diversity of the migrants who had been on the stricken boat – 12 of the survivors were from Mali, four from Eritrea, three from Bangladesh, two from Senegal, two from Somalia and three from Sierra Leone, Gambia and Ivory Coast.