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The United Nations and aid organizations issued urgent appeals Wednesday for search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea following a deadly few days that saw at least 400 migrants feared drowned.
More than 7,000 migrants — a record-breaking number — were rescued while trying to reach Europe between Friday and Monday, according to the European Union. Around 450 of those migrants were children, according to Save the Children.
The organization said that the migrants were traveling on 22 overcrowded boats, one of which capsized. While 144 people were rescued, up to 400 others are missing, Save the Children said.
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“If the reports are confirmed, this past weekend would be among the deadliest few days in the world’s most dangerous stretch of water for migrants and asylum seekers,” Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Wednesday. “But the unbearable number of lives lost at sea will only grow if the EU doesn’t act now to ensure search-and-rescue operations across the Mediterranean.”
The U.N. said that if the 400 deaths are confirmed that would put the migrant death toll so far this year in the Mediterranean at 900.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply shocked" to hear of the latest tragedy, saying in a statement Wednesday that it "only demonstrates how important it is to have a robust rescue-at-sea mechanism, in the central Mediterranean."
About 31,500 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece so far this year, according to the U.N.
Italian authorities are scrambling to find emergency accommodation, according to Human Rights Watch, which criticized a lack of preparedness for migrant arrivals.
"Other EU countries have shown a distinct lack of political will to help alleviate Italy’s unfair share of the responsibility," Human Rights Watch added.
UNHCR called Tuesday for the "urgent establishment of a robust European search-and-rescue operation," saying that "without proper search, rescue and monitoring operations at sea, many more people will die trying to reach safety in Europe.
The Italian navy’s search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, was discontinued last year and replaced by a more limited European Union border control mission called Triton.