Some 100 migrants missing, feared dead, off Libyan coast
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Some 100 migrants missing, feared dead, off Libyan coast

Tragedy strikes as heads of 7 southern European states meet to discuss challenge of migrants from war-torn and impoverished countries

Migrants and refugees panic as they fall in the water during a rescue operation of the Topaz Responder rescue ship run by Maltese NGO Moas and Italian Red Cross, off the Libyan coast in the  Mediterranean Sea, on November 3, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/ANDREAS SOLARO)
Migrants and refugees panic as they fall in the water during a rescue operation of the Topaz Responder rescue ship run by Maltese NGO Moas and Italian Red Cross, off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea, on November 3, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/ANDREAS SOLARO)

The Libyan navy said on Wednesday that some 100 migrants are missing at sea and feared dead while the coast guard rescued at least 279 others off the coast of Libya.

The migrants, mostly Africans, had embarked on the perilous trip across the Mediterranean onboard several vessels and the survivors were found on Tuesday.

Those missing were all from a single rubber boat that capsized while at sea. Its remnants were found off the western city of Khoms, the navy said.

The other migrants were found off the city of Zawiya, also in western Libya.

The tragedy was made public as the heads of seven southern European states were set to gather in Rome on Wednesday to tackle one of the most stubborn thorns in the EU’s side: flows of migrants from war-torn and impoverished countries.

The leaders of Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain were due to meet in the Italian capital for a short meeting at 7 p.m. (1800 GMT), followed by a joint press conference and a working dinner.

It will be the fourth meeting of the “Southern Seven” since Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras launched the initiative in September 2016. The group met twice last year, in Lisbon and Madrid.

Issues on the agenda are expected to include the future of the eurozone and efforts to propel growth, employment and investment, as well as preparation for the 2019 uropean Parliament elections.

Migrants and refugees wait to be registered by police at the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, September 6, 2015. (AP/Santi Palacios)

But from overcrowded reception centres on Greek islands to packed boats heading for Spain, the hottest topic is bound to be migrants.

For Italy, 2017 was a turning point: the country went from large-scale arrivals in the first six months to a sharp drop-off, thanks to controversial agreements in Libya.

Some 119,000 people landed in Italy last year, down 35 percent on 2016.

For its part, Spain saw a notable increase in Algerians and Moroccans sailing in, from 6,000 attempting the crossing in 2016 to nearly 23,000 picked up last year.

In Greece, an accord struck between the EU and Turkey limited the number of arrivals to 28,800 — six times fewer than in 2016 — but it did not solve the problem of caring for those who had already made the journey.

The toll of dead or missing in the Mediterranean dropped from nearly 5,000 during crossings in 2016 to 3,116 in 2017, mostly off the coast of Libya, although the start of 2018 has already seen some grim statistics.

Illustrative: This handout picture released on the Twitter account of the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med) shows a shipreck of migrants and refugees off Libya, on May 26, 2016. (AFP/Marina Militare/STR/Twitter – EUNAVFOR Med)

Apart from rescues at sea, asylum applications — and the inevitable delays and lengthy appeals — have placed great strain on some countries.

Greece is struggling to deal with more than 50,000 migrants and refugees, 14,000 of whom are crammed into tents or centres on overcrowded Aegean islands.

In Italy, the authorities have stopped providing details on the number of asylum seekers housed in its reception centers, with the last available figures showing there were nearly 200,000 last spring.

Despite a proliferation of small structures aimed at improving integration, tens of thousands of people are still forced to idle away their days in large centers as a climate of mistrust and racism grows ahead of Italy’s general elections on March 4.

Spain has faced a backlash over the state of the detention centers where migrants are held before being expelled.

Anger was fueled in December after the suicide of an Algerian who was locked up in a prison in the southern region of Andalusia along with nearly 500 other migrants for lack of space elsewhere.

The southern European countries have urged time and again for the migrant burden to be shared across the EU.

Italian Minister of Economy and Finance Pier Carlo Padoan (right) speaks with Luxembourg’s Finance Minister Pierre Gramegna during an Eurogroup meeting in Luxembourg, June 16, 2016. (AFP/JOHN THYS)“Italy can no longer continue to pay for everyone, in financial terms as well as in terms of political effort,” Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan said Monday in Brussels.

Interior Minister Marco Minniti — the man behind the Brussels-backed deal with Libya to block migrants from setting out for Europe — has urged the EU to follow Italy’s lead on humanitarian corridors.

Three days before Christmas, Rome welcomed a group of 162 Ethiopian, Somali and Yemeni refugees who flew directly in from crisis-hit Libya.

Some 10,000 refugees are expected to follow in 2018, Minniti said — provided they are spread across the EU.

With France also facing a record increase in asylum applications, the migration issue is also expected to figure at a bilateral meeting Thursday between President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

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