100 feared dead off Libya as EU leaders hail migrant deal

(CNN) – A hundred or more people are feared dead after a rubber boat carrying migrants capsized Friday off the Libyan coast, Libya’s navy said, hours after European Union leaders hailed a deal on migration that could see more migrants prevented from making the perilous Mediterranean crossing.

A rescue operation is ongoing, but the bodies of three children have been retrieved, Libyan navy spokesman Ayoub Qassim said.

The International Organization for Migration said only 14 migrants had been rescued so far.

“The bodies of three children under the age of 5 have been retrieved. How many missing or dead total, we don’t know for now,” IOM spokeswoman for Libya, Christine Petre, told CNN.

Doctors are providing medical assistance on site, and additional staff have been deployed, Petre said. “IOM is providing humanitarian direct assistance at the disembarkation point, including water and food,” she said.

Separately, an estimated 345 migrants were returned Friday to Libyan shores by the Libyan coast guard, IOM said.

Close to 10,200 migrants have been taken back to Libya so far in 2018, Petre said. More than 2,000 were returned by the Libyan coast guard last week.

EU ‘abdicating responsibilities’

Aid group Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières, urged EU leaders Friday to “show some basic decency” by committing to search and rescue operations for those in trouble at sea — and then taking them to a place of safety, rather than Libya.

“EU member states are abdicating their responsibilities to save lives and deliberately condemning vulnerable people to be trapped in Libya, or die at sea,” said Karline Kleijer, head of emergencies for the aid group.

“They do this fully aware of the extreme violence and abuses that refugees and migrants suffer in Libya.”

Libyan deportation centers are rife with abuse, rights groups say, and a CNN undercover investigation last year revealed cases of migrants being sold at slave auctions.

Italy’s new populist government has stirred controversy this month by closing its ports to ships rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte welcomed the European Council deal Friday, saying it took “long negotiation, but from today Italy is no longer alone.”

Uptick in crossings

Under the deal agreed early Friday at the European Council summit in Brussels, the European Union will look into setting up migration centers in countries outside Europe to assess migrants’ claims for protection as well as secure centers on European soil.

The proposed “regional disembarkation platforms” would be in North African nations such as Libya, with the aim of breaking the business model of human traffickers who ship migrants across the sea to Europe. However, it’s not yet clear whether those countries are able or willing to operate such a system.

EU leaders also agreed to intensify efforts to stop smugglers operating out of Libya or elsewhere, including greater support for the Libyan coast guard and for the Sahel region, through which many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa travel on their way north.

In addition, the deal includes more money for Spain and Morocco to stem migrants coming through the eastern Mediterranean route.

Despite the dangers, thousands of migrants — many fleeing conflict, poverty or oppression — continue to risk their lives on overcrowded and barely seaworthy boats in the hope of finding a better life on European shores.

While illegal border crossings into the EU have decreased by 95% from their peak in October 2015, there has been a recent uptick in certain routes across the Mediterranean, the European Council said.

As of June 6, some 33,400 migrants and refugees had reached Europe by sea this year, IOM said, most of them arriving through Greece, Italy and Spain. The estimated number of deaths stood at 785.