More than 100 Tunisian migrants die when overloaded boat capsizes in Mediterranean

The UN migration agency says the weekend capsizing off Tunisia of an overloaded smuggling boat is now believed to be the deadliest shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea this year. Meanwhile, EU leaders struggle to agree on a new approach to asylum seekers.

UN migration agency says it is the deadliest smuggling boat disaster this year

A relative of Tunisian migrants, who drowned when their boat sank, waits outside a hospital morgue to identify the bodies of her family, in Sfax, on Monday. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)

European Union countries remained deeply divided over how to reform EU rules for managing the influx of refugees and migrants, as UN agencies reported that an estimated 112 people died over the weekend when a smuggler's boat sank as it tried to reach Europe.

The estimated toll made the shipwreck off Tunisia the deadliest this year on the dangerous route from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

In Geneva, the UN migration agency said the weekend capsizing involved an overloaded smuggling boat. 

Leonard Doyle of the International Organization for Migration says his group counted 60 confirmed deaths and 52 people missing and presumed dead from the capsizing off the eastern city of Sfax. Officials said another 68 people survived.

EU leaders divided on asylum system 

EU migration ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, were pessimistic that new proposals to update the bloc's asylum system would be accepted by many of the bloc's 28 nations.

Well over one million people, mostly Syrians fleeing war at home, entered Europe in 2015, overwhelming Greece and Italy and surprising Germany, which took in hundreds of thousands of refugees. Their arrival strained relations among EU neighbours and fuelled anti-migrant sentiment, especially in central and eastern Europe.

EU leaders have insisted that the deadlock over how to handle migrants and refugees must be broken this month.

In his first policy address, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared Europe's immigration policy a "failure" and demanded that it be renegotiated. Italy has been the primary entry point for thousands of migrants to Europe via the Mediterranean this year.
A relative reacts as he leaves the hospital morgue after identifying the bodies of his family members. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)

Conte insisted the rest of the EU must take on a greater burden of accepting refugees, as well as negotiating with migrants' home countries to return those who don't qualify for asylum.

Germany's deputy interior minister, Stephan Mayer, said "there are still considerable deficits" in the proposals to overhaul EU immigration laws, while Dutch migration minister Mark Harbers said there are "a lot of member states that still have points of discussion."

"First we have to fix the front door, fix the back door," Belgian migration minister Theo Francken told reporters. "Then we can find a compromise on who's doing what. When we don't have a solution for the massive influx of illegal aliens in our Europe, Europe will end, and we will never get out of this crisis."

Migrants could be sent to other countries 

Denmark's prime minister, however, predicted that a new European asylum system could be in place as soon as next year and said asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected could be sent to a country "that is not on the migrant's wish list."

Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen gave no further details Tuesday besides that fact that several European countries have discussed the plan.

Most of the disagreements focus on who should look after the migrants when they arrive and for how long. Under current EU rules, people must register for asylum in the European country they first arrive in. This has meant that Greece and Italy have carried most of the burden. But some nations — Hungary and Poland notably — have refused to honour any migrant quotas shared among European nations.

Police search for 8 smugglers

The rescue operation off Tunisia was temporarily called off due to bad weather but resumed Tuesday as Tunisia's prime minister travelled to the island from where the boat took off late Saturday. Tunisian police were searching for eight smugglers implicated in the capsizing — all from the lIe of Kerkennah.

"There are no words to describe this drama," said Organization for Migration (IOM) chief Lorena Lando. "Behind the numbers, men, women and children lost their lives following an uncertain dream."

Relatives carry a coffin containing the body of one of the people who drowned when the boat capsized. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)

Doyle said the toll makes the capsizing "the single biggest incident of dead and missing this year" on the Mediterranean, after two other shipwrecks off the Libyan coast in January and February that each left 100 people dead or missing and presumed dead.

IOM's "Missing Migrants Project" reports there have been 785 deaths on the Mediterranean so far this year, less than half the figure over the same period last year.

In southern Germany, authorities arrested two Syrian men on suspicion of people smuggling in the Ludwigsburg region and searched 10 premises in two German states.