ROME - The Mediterranean Sea is becoming a "cemetery" for poor migrants, Malta's prime minister said on Saturday after another boat sank off Sicily, killing dozens more people.
Italian calls for Europe to do more about the migrant crisis also grew following the second tragedy in the past week.
Even Pope Francis added his voice, decrying the indifference toward the plight of migrants who die at sea while trying to reach Europe.
"Lord, have mercy! Too often we are blinded by our comfortable lives, and refuse to see those dying at our doorstep," he wrote on Twitter.
A Maltese policeman carries a child rescued by the armed forces after an overloaded migrant ship sank on Saturday. (AFP Photo)
Italian and Maltese navy ships recovered 34 bodies and rescued 206 migrants after their boat sank about 60 nautical miles south of Sicily on Friday and rescued more than 200 others in separate incidents on Saturday.
Friday's disaster came just over a week after at least 359 people drowned when a boat sank less than a kilometre from Lampedusa, a tiny island between Sicily and Tunisia which has become the main entry point into Europe for migrant boats.
Over the past two decades, arrivals from North Africa have become a regular feature in favourable summer sailing conditions, but this year the crisis has been worsened by instability in Egypt and Libya and the civil war in Syria.
"I don't know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done," Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in an interview with the BBC. He said he would join Italy in pressing for action at the next European Council.
"The fact is that as things stand, we are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea," he said. "Until now we have encoutered statements, words but little more than that."
As he spoke, Italian patrol boats were rescuing 235 more people, including children, from more migrant boats in distress some 70 nautical miles south of Lampedusa.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has already pressed for the crisis to be included on the European Council agenda at its Oct 24-25 meeting although Europe has long struggled to come up with a comprehensive response to the crisis.
"These are people who are fleeing war to save their lives, they're not people looking for work," said Andrea Pettini, a senior official of the Italian Red Cross.
According to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, around 32,000 migrants have arrived in southern Italy and Malta so far this year, about two-thirds of whom have filed asylum requests.
Italy, deep in recession and pressed by EU budget rules to rein in public spending, has seen its reception facilities on Lampedusa and other parts of Sicily strained to breaking point and it has called repeatedly for more help to confront a crisis it says is a European emergency.
The hundreds of deaths have also set off a fierce political debate in Italy over tough rules intended to combat clandestine immigration which make it an offence to offer assistance to illegal migrant boats.
Latest stories in this category:
- Swann catch ensures honours even in 2nd Ashes Test
- Japan launches $53.8 bn stimulus package
- FIFA readies for World Cup draw, puts delays aside
- US woman is star of 'Arabs Got Talent' TV show
- 'Fast and Furious' star died of impact, fire
- 'At least 20 dead' as Yemen defence complex stormed
- N. Korea prison camp expands, guards use rape and torture: report
- Ukraine hosts top diplomats as pressure grows on president