Prosecutors said Tuesday they have arrested the Tunisian captain and a Syrian crew member of a boat that capsized off the coast of Libya with hundreds of people aboard in what may be the deadliest migrant tragedy ever.
Assistant Prosecutor Rocco Liguori said the two men were charged with favoring illegal immigration and that the captain was also charged with reckless multiple homicide in relation to the sinking.
The captain and crew member were arrested aboard the rescue boat that brought 27 survivors from the shipwreck, which may have killed as many as 900 people, to Sicily.
Even as the search continued for victims of the weekend disaster, coast guard ships rushed to respond to new distress calls on the high seas — two off Libya and a third boat that ran aground near Greece.
European leaders struggled Monday for an adequate response in the face of unremitting migrant flows and continued instability in Libya that has given free rein to human traffickers.
Decrying what he called an "escalation in these death voyages," Italian Premier Matteo Renzi urged Europe to put the focus on preventing more boats from leaving Libya, the source of 90 percent of migrant traffic to Italy.
"We are facing an organized criminal activity that is making lots of money, but above all ruining many lives," Renzi said at a joint news conference with Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat. He compared their activity to that of slave traders of centuries past, "unscrupulous men who traded human lives."
Prosecutors in Palermo, meanwhile, said a trafficking ring they had cracked had generated transactions worth hundreds of thousands of euros crisscrossing Europe as migrants paid not only to cross the Mediterranean but also to join relatives in northern Europe.
Prosecutor Maurizio Scalia said based on telephone intercepts, the average cost to smuggle a migrant from Eritrea or Ethiopia to Libya ran $4,000 to $5,000, while the crossing to Italy cost an additional $1,000 to $1,500. Migrants pay hundreds of dollars more to get out of holding centers and at least another $1,000 to travel to northern Europe.