ROME (AP) — Italy pressed the EU on Wednesday to devise robust steps to stop the deadly tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, including considering military intervention against smugglers and boosting U.N. refugee offices in countries bordering Libya.
"We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather," said Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti. "The plans for military intervention are there."
Some 90 percent of smugglers' boats leave from Libya, where the lack of a central authority coupled with extremists affiliated with the Islamic State group have contributed to chaos and lawlessness that have allowed criminal trafficking networks to proliferate.
Pinotti said Italy was willing to take the helm of any military intervention if asked and as long as it is carried out as an international mission, backed by the United Nations.
"We're ready to do our share," she told Sky TG24. "We're the closest country to Libya."
Pinotti spoke a day before EU leaders hold an emergency summit in Brussels called in the wake of a shipwreck off Libya last weekend that may have killed more than 800 migrants. It would be the highest known loss of migrants' lives in a single incident in the Mediterranean.
Ahead of the summit, Premier Mario Renzi called for EU leaders to approve three key proposals: doubling the resources and assets of the current EU border patrol mission; destroying smugglers' boats and improving coordination across the EU for transferring asylum seekers.
"European Union naval operations in the Horn of Africa have successfully fought piracy — and a similar initiative must be developed to effectively fight against human trafficking in the Mediterranean," Renzi wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. "Trafficking vessels should be put out of operation."
In the latest arrivals of migrants, an Italian naval vessel docked in the Sicilian port of Augusta with 446 people who had been rescued off the southern coast of the Italian mainland. The navy said 59 were children.
"We prefer to die trying (to migrate) than stay back there and die," said Emmanual, a Nigerian migrant who recently arrived in Sicily. "Stay at home and get shot dead or maybe burnt to death, I just prefer to die while trying or survive."
Later in the day, another 540 migrants arrived in Salerno on the mainland. Some were in isolation under a tent of the main deck of the Italian navy ship that rescued them since they had scabies — underscoring a growing health threat that on Wednesday prompted Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin to convene a summit of EU health ministers in Rome to coordinate immunization and other health measures for the new arrivals.
Pinotti said she was cautiously hopeful that the EU summit on Thursday, solicited by Italy, would take tangible steps to deal with the emergency.
"We think it's the moment in which Europe decides, forcefully, to have an international police operation, which will undo this band of criminals," Pinotti said.
In a speech to Parliament, Renzi urged the EU to swiftly craft long-range, comprehensive policy on the migrants.
"When a person has to risk his life because he needs to escape from a situation where they are chopping off the heads of those near him, you cannot discourage departures with a generic statement," the premier said. "You can do it by putting the (U.N.) High Commissioner for Refugees in Niger, Sudan" and elsewhere in Africa.
Italian media reports this week said Italian government officials were considering proposing the setting up of refugee camps, under U.N. auspices, in Niger, Tunisia and Sudan, so that migrants' applications for refugee status could be examined there. Renzi didn't specify if camps would be an option, but stressed involvement of U.N. refugee offices in countries near Libya.
Pinotti indicated that if requests for asylum were processed in Africa, all EU countries could take a share of the migrants found eligible for refugee status or asylum.
She urged "sharing and co-responsibility," saying the migrants "all can't arrive in Italy."
Italy has saved about 200,000 migrant lives at sea since the start of 2014. But Renzi said Italy's "noble, generous reaction alone isn't enough."
"We are asking Europe to be Europe, not just when it's time to devise a budget," Renzi said.
He said broad, long-term EU strategy, including wider sea patrols, could help combat "21st-century slave drivers" of migrants. He also called for a robust presence of "international organizations" in the southern part of Libya.
Pinotti warned that the flow of migrants isn't about to stop, saying "90 percent are from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, from places where they are afraid of dying. We cannot stop them" from leaving their homelands.
Mohammed Cisse, a recent migrant from Gambia, said he and his "blood brothers" have little choice but to leave.
"We are all from the same Africa, we are risking our lives to cross the sea to come to Europe," he said from Clatagirone, Sicily. "It's very painful, we are dying at sea."
Since Italy is the first EU country where the boat migrants set foot, they stay in reception centers, sometimes for years, while their requests or appeals for asylum are processed.
Migrants deemed ineligible for asylum are ordered expelled, but many slip away and head to northern Europe to reach relatives.