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Last updated on April 24, 2015, at 9:49 a.m. ET

Posted on April 19, 2015, at 5:57 a.m. ET

Migrant Boat Captain Appears In Sicilian Court

Mohammed Ali Malek is accused of kidnapping and multiple homicide. His boat capsized in the Mediterranean on Sunday, killing at least 650 migrants.

Mohammed Ali Malek in the dock in Catania, April 24.
Antonio Parrinello / Reuters

Mohammed Ali Malek in the dock in Catania, April 24.

What We Know So Far

  • A smuggler's boat filled with at least 650 migrants capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya, and officials fear that most on board drowned.
  • The captain and a crew member have been arrested and charged.
  • European Union leaders are meeting to address the issue of unsafe migrant boats on Thursday.
  • Witnesses said many of the presumed victims were locked in the hull of the boat.
  • An interfaith funeral service has been held for victims on the island of Malta.
  • In a separate incident on Monday, at least three people died when a boat carrying migrants crashed off the coast of the Greek island Rhodes.

Updates

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Mohammed Ali Malek — the captain of the doomed migrant ship which capsized in the Mediterranean Sunday — is pictured speaking to his lawyer Massimo Ferrante while in the dock in a Catania courtroom earlier today.

Antonio Parrinello / Reuters
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European Union leaders have released a statement detailing the outcome of Thursday's meeting to discuss the Mediterranean migrant boat crisis.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron sit ahead of the meeting in Brussels, April 23.
Emmanuel Dunand / Getty Images

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron sit ahead of the meeting in Brussels, April 23.

Leaders committed to four overarching points of action:

1) Strengthening E.U. presence at sea: a commitment to reinforce the bloc's Triton and Poseidon operations by tripling financial resources.

2) Fighting traffickers in accordance with international law: disrupt trafficking networks, bring perpetrators to justice, capture and destroy vessels before use, and ramping up law enforcement's capability to identify and limit the capabilities of those engaging in trafficking.

3) Preventing illegal migration flows: increase support and political co-operation with migrants' home countries.

4) Reinforcing solidarity and responsibility: effective implementation of the Common European Asylum System, increasing emergency aid to frontline member states, bolstering frontline member states' ability to deal with asylum applicants.

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Mohammed Ali Malek, the captain of the migrant boat which capsized in the Mediterranean on Sunday has appeared in court in Catania, Italy on Friday.

Captain of doomed migrant ship in the dock Italian court. Mohammed Ali Malek faced multiple homicide charges

Malek is accused of kidnapping and multiple homicide, and appeared emotionless in a caged dock in the Sicilian court, ITV News reported.

He appeared alongside his co-accused, Mohammed Bikhit, at the start of what is likely to be a lengthy legal process.

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Rights group Amnesty International has condemned the contents of the leaked European Union draft on migrant boats.

Am ashamed that the immediate response of European leaders to deaths in the med is not to restart search and rescue ops #DontLetThemDrown

In a statement, Amnesty International U.K. Director Kate Allen said:

"What the EU appears to be proposing is illegal, impractical and immoral.

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."

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The United Nations' Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has released a statement urging European Union leaders to "put human life, rights, and dignity first" when they meet to discuss the migrant boat crisis on Thursday. The statement added:

The European Union response needs to go beyond the present minimalist approach in the 10 Point Plan on Migration, announced by the EU on Monday, which focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on its shores. As a paramount principle, the safety, protection needs, and human rights of all migrants and refugees should be at the forefront of the EU response. EU leaders must look beyond the present situation and work closely with transit and origin countries both to alleviate the immediate plight of migrants and refugees and address in a more comprehensive way the many factors that drive them to resort to such desperate journeys by sea. Enforcement alone will not solve the issue of irregular migration, but could increase the risks and abuse faced by migrants and refugees.

We would therefore encourage bold, collective action to expand the range of measures under consideration to include:

  • Setting in place a State-led, robust, proactive, and well-resourced search-and-rescue operation, urgently and without delay, with a capacity similar to Mare Nostrum and a clear mission to save lives.
  • Creating sufficient channels for safe and regular migration, including for low-skilled migrant workers and individuals in need of family reunification, and access to protection where needed, as safe alternatives to resorting to smugglers.
  • Making a firm commitment to receive significantly higher numbers of refugees through EU-wide resettlement, in addition to current quotas, and on a scale which will make a real impact, combined with other legal means for refugees to reach safety.
  • Bolstering arrangements to support those countries receiving the most arrivals (Italy, Malta, and Greece) and to distribute responsibility more equitably across the European Union for saving lives and protecting all those in need.
  • Combatting racist and xenophobic rhetoric vilifying migrants and refugees.
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The Mediterranean island state of Malta on Thursday held a solemn interfaith funeral for 24 of the migrants killed in Sunday's boat disaster, the BBC reported.

Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

The ceremony was presided over by the Bishop of Gozo, Mario Grech (left), and Imam Mohammed El Sadi (right) at the country's Mater Dei Hospital in Tal'Qroqq, just outside the capital Valletta.

Matthew Mirabelli / Getty Images

Only 24 bodies were recovered from the disaster, which took up to 650 lives. The victims were carried in plain brown coffins by members of the Maltese military along a flower-lined red carpet and into a temporary white marquee.

Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

One coffin, carrying the body of a teenage boy, was white, the BBC said. With no families to be returned to, the migrants' bodies will be taken in groups of six to be buried in Malta's Addolorata Cemetery, according to Reuters.

Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

Other migrants who had made the journey attended the ceremony alongside Maltese government officials and foreign representatives.

Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

European Union Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos (center), Maltese President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (second right) and Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat (right) were among those in attendance.

Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

Women who had made the journey from sub-Saharan Africa wept during the emotional service, wiping away tears with headscarves, the BBC said.

Rene Rossiganud / AP
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A draft document obtained by both The Guardian and The Financial Times ahead of a summit of European Union leaders on Thursday has revealed most migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean are likely to be sent home.

Got my grubby hands on draft communiqué for tomorrow's emergency #EU summit on Med migration crisis. Posted it here: http://t.co/ZhmClZBR8a

Only 5,000 resettlement places will be made available according to the document, meaning the vast majority of the 36,000 boat survivors to have made it to Italy, Malta and Greece in 2015 will be sent back to their countries of origin as irregular migrants as part of a rapid-return program organized by Frontex — the E.U. border agency, The Guardian reported.

Some 150,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean last year.

The FT said the document was sent to EU national capitals late on Wednesday. It proposes to "at least" double the resources given to the bloc's two Mediterranean maritime patrol operations.

It also proposed to "identify, capture and destroy" vessels before they are used by traffickers. However there are doubts among diplomats about the legality of such a move, according to the FT.

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Libyan smugglers refused to sell life jackets to migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, a spokeswoman for Save the Children told BuzzFeed News.

Francesco Pecoraro / AP

As details of Mediterranean sea crossings undertaken by migrants from all over Africa start to emerge, an aid official on the ground described some of the racial and economic dynamics on the packed boats.

"Migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa get locked in the lower deck because they can only afford the cheaper tickets," Gemma Parkin, a spokeswoman for Save the Children said.

According to IOM data, the migrants come from countries like Mali, Senegal, Gambia, and Somalia, but also from Syria and Iraq. Parkin said those with a lighter skin color get preferential treatment. "We spoke to migrants who said Libyan smugglers refused to sell life jackets to those from sub-Saharan Africa," she said.

Parkin, who has been working with refugees in southern Italy since 2008, said the racial and economic divide among the migrants crossing the Mediterranean has always been present.

BuzzFeed News reached out to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and asked if its workers have also observed the same pattern. UNHCR's Senior Communications Officer William Spindler said while his organization was not in a position to verify those reports he said they sound "very plausible."

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Italian navy ship Bettica docked at the port of Augusta, in Sicily, with 446 migrants on board on Wednesday morning, according to an email Save the Children sent to BuzzFeed News.

Also on Wednesday, another 112 people arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, Save the Children said.

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Save the Children has released new photos showing the four teenage boys who survived the April 19 disaster arriving in Catania, Sicily, Monday night.

Save the Children

The boys — two 17-year-old Bangladeshis, and two Somalis aged 16 and 17 — were among just 28 people to have survived the capsizing, which killed at least 650 people.

Save the Children

"We are very happy to be here," the boys said, according to the charity.

Save the Children

Save the Children also released the testimony of Said, the 16-year-old Somali boy.

According to the charity, the teenager crossed the desert through Sudan to the Libyan border, where he was held prisoner for nine months until his parents could afford to pay his Sudanese traffickers.

The boy told the charity that many other children were held by the armed smugglers and badly treated. He said many did not have enough food and became sick.

After traveling to Tripoli to board the smugglers' boat, Said told the charity that the traffickers had intended to pack 1,200 people on board, but had to stop at 800.

He said there was no food or water on board the vessel and those who were put below were locked inside.

Said said people rushed to one side of the vessel after rescue boats approached, causing the vessel to capsize. The teenager said he fainted and woke up after he was rescued.

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This graph shows the huge increase in deaths at sea between Jan. 1 and April 21 of this year and last.

BuzzFeed News

While the increase in the same period is dramatic, a total of 3,279 migrants were estimated to have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean waters in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The 2015 numbers are particularly disturbing, however, because so many deaths have occurred before the 'peak season' of crossing begins in Europe's warmer months.

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The Tunisian captain of the boat that capsized off the Libyan coast on Sunday with at least 650 people on board was charged by Italian prosecutors with reckless multiple homicide on Tuesday, the BBC reported.

Mohammed Ali Malek, left, and Mahmud Bikhit.
Alessandra Tarantino / AP

Mohammed Ali Malek, left, and Mahmud Bikhit.

Italian prosecutors said on Tuesday that Mohammed Ali Malek, the 27-year-old captain from Tunisia, rammed the boat into a Portuguese-flagged cargo ship which came to the rescue, according to the Associated Press.

Another factor that contributed to the capsize, prosecutors said, was that those on board all moved to one side of the boat on seeing the ship approaching.

Mahmud Bikhit, a crew member from Syria, was also charged on Tuesday with favouring illegal immigration.

Both men were part of the 27 survivors rescued by the Italian coastguard following Sunday's tragic shipwreck that killed at least 650 people, according to the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

There have been conflicting reports as to the number of dead. The UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, puts the number of fatalities at over 800, while the International Organisation for Migration estimates the death toll at 770.

According to the latest IOM figures obtained by BuzzFeed News, 21,191 people have made the perilous journey from North Africa to European shores so far this year.

After Sunday's shipwreck, the death toll in Mediterranean waters in 2015 reached 1,600.

The report says the migrants come mainly from Gambia, Senegal, Somalia and Syria, followed by Mali, Eritrea, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast.

The bulk of the boats depart from the Libyan coast, but between 10 percent and 20 percent of the journeys also start in Egypt.

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The Tunisian captain and a Syrian crew member of the capsized boat were arrested, the Associated Press reported.

Assistant Italian prosecutor Rocco Liguori told the AP that the captain, who was not immediately identified, was charged with reckless multiple homicide in what could be Mediterranean's deadliest maritime migrant disaster ever, with at least 650 people now feared dead, according to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Both men, who face charges of favoring illegal immigration to Italy, were arrested aboard the rescue boat that brought 27 survivors to safety.

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The European Union laid out a framework of measures aimed at responding to the migrant crisis, E.U. Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini announced Monday.

John Thys / Getty Images

The "10-point action plan" was created during talks in Luxembourg with E.U. foreign ministers in response to what the officials termed the "crisis in the Mediterranean."

The measures include strengthening border surveillance and providing additional funding and assets to the existing European rescue programs, Triton and Poseidon, which were established in the wake of Italy's decision to shut down its more expansive, and more costly, Mare Nostrum program.

Other points include "a systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers" and the establishment of "a new return program for rapid return of irregular migrants."

The ministers also are aiming to have asylum applications jointly processed within two months of their being lodged, as well as having all migrants fingerprinted and recorded.

"The 10 actions we have agreed upon today are the direct, substantial measures we will take to make an immediate difference," Mogherini and Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said in a joint statement. "We will convey these proposals to the European Council which will meet on Thursday in an extraordinary session to address the situation in the Mediterranean."

"This is what Europe taking responsibility is -- all of us working together," they said.

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No women or children are believed to have survived Sunday's shipwreck, according to the charity Save the Children.

The charity said that anecdotal testimony from a Bangladeshi man onboard the ship said there were about 200 women and children traveling on the vessel before it capsized.

Save the Children CEO Justin Forsyth welcomed the EU's decision to convene a summit on Thursday, but criticized leaders for not immediately launching a major search and rescue operation.

"What we needed from EU foreign ministers today was life-saving action, but they dithered," Forsyth said in a statement. "The emergency summit on Thursday is now a matter of life and death.

"With each day we delay we lose more innocent lives and Europe slips further into an immoral abyss. Right now, people desperately seeking a better life are drowning in politics."

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"It seems we are looking at the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean," U.N. refugee agency spokesperson Carlotta Sami told Agence France-Presse of the hundreds feared drowned over the weekend.

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President of the European Council Donald Tusk said the meeting of EU leaders on the migrant crisis will take place on Thursday, according to Agence France-Presse.

#BREAKING EU sets emergency summit for Thursday on migrant crisis: Tusk

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Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said rescue ships are responding to two migrant ships in peril, the Associated Press reported on Monday.

MILAN (@AP) - Italian premier: Ships are responding to distress calls from 2 boats carrying some 400 people.

At a press conference alongside Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, Renzi said ships are on their way to an inflatable life raft near Libya's coast that is believed to have 100 to 150 people on board.

Ships are also responding to a distress call from another boat with 300 people on board, Renzi told reporters.

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EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said EU ministers will hold emergency talks in Luxembourg later on Monday to discuss the migration issue.

Tomorrow we will have in Luxembourg a joint meeting of EU Foreign and Interior ministers on #migration

In a strongly worded statement, Mogherini said it was Europe's "moral duty" to "prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again and again."

She said:

After what happened in the Mediterranean the night before last I felt it was our moral duty to concentrate our responsibility, as Europeans, to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again and again. You might remember that just a month ago I put migration for the first time after 10 years on the agenda of the Foreign Ministers meeting and we agreed on that occasion to have a joint ministerial of Foreign Ministers and Interior Ministers. I am happy to say - if there is anything to be happy about - that we are having this finally today; Interior ministers are joining us this afternoon. We will tackle the issues strictly related to migration also in view of preparing - in case there is a decision in this direction by President Tusk - an extraordinary European Council later this week. I will speak to President Tusk during the day and we will evaluate the situation.

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A survivor from Sunday's deadly shipwreck spoke to Italian officials on Monday about the horrors of his journey.

The Bangladeshi migrant told Italian prosecutors the smugglers packed as many as 950 people on board, the Associated Press reported.

The 32-year-old man was receiving treatment at a Sicily hospital.

"He is pretty well now and he is reporting that there were really many, many persons including children on the boat," Carlotta Sami, a U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman, told AP. "So it's confirming the terrible news."

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said some of those who perished on Sunday seem to have been locked in the lower deck of the boat.

Accounts by some survivors indicate 950 people on board capsized boat, inc 200 women, 50 kids. Some reportedly locked in lower deck -JM

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Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called on Sunday for an extraordinary meeting of European Union leaders this week after an estimated 650 migrants were feared to have drowned during a capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya.

Tiziana Fabi / AFP / Getty Images

The incident is believed to have taken place when those on board all moved to one side of the boat after seeing a merchant ship approaching, according to the Times of Malta.

Migrants stand on the deck of the Italian navy ship Driade prior to being disembarked in Messina, Sicily, on April 18.
Carmelo Imbesi / AP

Migrants stand on the deck of the Italian navy ship Driade prior to being disembarked in Messina, Sicily, on April 18.

Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat, said on Sunday that many people were feared dead.

@Armed_Forces_MT assisting rescue op after boat wt 650 immigrants capsized in #Libya waters. Less than 50 rescued so far. Many feared dead.

So far some 28 people have been rescued in a major operation involving 20 ships and three helicopters, the Italian coast guard told the BBC.

U.N. refugee agency spokesperson Carlotta Sami said that, if confirmed, this latest incident could bring the number of migrants who have perished attempting the sea journey to 1,500 this year.

Se confermato naufragio di questa notte con 500 persone morte, le vittime del 2015 salirebbero a 1500. Ecatombe all'uscio dell'Europa.

Translation: "If last night's shipwreck is confirmed and 500 people have died, the victims of 2015 would increase to 1,500."

Migrants rest after disembarking in the Sicilian harbour of Augusta, April 16, 2015.
Antonio Parrinello / Reuters

Migrants rest after disembarking in the Sicilian harbour of Augusta, April 16, 2015.

"This is a European tragedy," Renzi told reporters in Rome. He said Italian officials are working to organize the summit for this week, calling it a "priority."

"We are not talking about trivial issues," Renzi said. "We are talking about human dignity and fighting against human trafficking."

Tiziana Fabi / AFP / Getty Images

Last week some 400 migrants are believed to have died attempting to cross Mediterranean waters from north Africa.

Prior to that journey, the number of people who have perished attempting to reach European shores this year stood at 500.

According to figures from the U.N. refugee agency , some 31,500 people fleeing conflict in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East have turned up on the Italian and Greek coasts so far this year.

The agency is calling on the European Union to increase its search and rescue operations as well as provide more legal avenues to safely cross into the continent.

"Otherwise people seeking safety will continue to perish at sea," António Guterres, U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement. "But it also points to the need for a comprehensive European approach to address the root causes that drive so many people to this tragic end. I hope the EU will rise to the occasion, fully assuming a decisive role to prevent future such tragedies."

At a meeting with Italy's new president, Sergio Mattarella, on Sunday, Pope Francis urged the international community to do more to tackle the rising number of migrants willing to risk their lives trying to reach Europe. Many face conflict and poverty back home.

Later on Sunday, addressing thousands in Saint Peter's Square, Francis expressed his sorrow for those who perished in the latest crossing, according to Vatican media.

"Faced with such a tragedy, I express my most heartfelt pain and promise to remember the victims and their families in prayer," he said. "I make a heartfelt appeal to the international community to react decisively and quickly to see to it that such tragedies are not repeated."

Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer from the window of the Apostolic Palace in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 19, 2015.
Tony Gentile / Reuters

Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer from the window of the Apostolic Palace in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 19, 2015.

As the European summer approaches and Mediterranean waters get warmer, Italian officials said they expect tragedies such as these to become more frequent.

The charity Save the Children called on EU leaders to convene crisis talks to restart regular search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

"The scale of what is happening in the Mediterranean isn't an accident, it's a direct result of our policy," said Chief Executive Justin Forsyth in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "How many more innocent children and their families must die before our leaders act?

"Europe cannot look the other way while thousands die off our shores."

The call was echoed by Loris De Filippi, president of Doctors Without Borders. "A mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean Sea and European policies are responsible," he said.

"Seven hundred deaths in a day are figures from a war zone. This humanitarian tragedy is now under everyone's eyes but Europe is not willing to address it."

However, Renzi denied that Italy's decision last year to shut its costly search and rescue operation, known as Mare Nostrum, was to blame for the deaths.

"It's not a question of having 10 more ships," he said. "In this case, the accident happened not because there was no rescue ship."

Renzi said efforts must be concentrated in north Africa to stem the flow of people boarding boats.

"If we cannot remove the problem in Libya we will never succeed in solving this terrible problem," he said.


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