As many as 400 people are feared lost after a migrant boat capsized off the coast of Libya as the ship headed to Europe, survivors have told aid workers.
The Italian coast guard had so far helped rescue 144 people and has launched an air and sea search operation in hopes of finding others. Nine bodies have been found so far, but that figure is set to rise steeply given how many people were on the ship.
“According to their stories, they all departed from Libya [with] more than 550 people on the same boat that capsized only 24 hours after they departed,” Carlotta Bellini, a Save the Children spokeswoman in Rome, told Al Jazeera.
The deaths, if confirmed, would add to the skyrocketing numbers of migrants lost at sea: The International Organization for Migration estimates that up to 3,072 migrants are believed to have died in the Mediterranean in 2014, compared to an estimate of 700 in 2013.
The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said Italy's coast guard had saved about 8,500 migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean since Friday.
“Those rescued since last Friday included an estimated 3,000 people in four boats and 16 dinghies rescued on Monday,” the agency said in a statement.
Earlier on Tuesday, the European Union's top migration official said the EU must quickly adapt to the growing numbers of migrants trying to reach its shores.
“The unprecedented influx of migrants at our borders, and in particular refugees, is unfortunately the new norm and we will need to adjust our responses accordingly,” the EU's commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, told lawmakers in Brussels.
More than 280,000 people entered the European Union illegally last year. Many came from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia and made the perilous sea journey from conflict-torn Libya.
European coast guards have been overwhelmed by the numbers. As the weather has begun to warm, even more people have been fleeing conflict and poverty for better lives in Europe.
Meanwhile the EU's Frontex border agency said that people smugglers trying to recover a wooden boat that had been carrying migrants had fired shots into the air to warn away a coast guard vessel.
The confrontation happened Monday some 60 nautical miles off the coast of Libya after an Italian tugboat and the coast guard ship came to the rescue of 250 migrants.
The coast guard vessel was already carrying 342 migrants from a previous rescue.
It is at least the second incident of this kind, raising concern for the safety of rescue workers and migrants alike.
Late next month, Avramopoulos is expected to unveil a new EU strategy aimed at tackling the migrant wave.
Al Jazeera and wire services