(CNN) – It was the latest in a series of dangerous voyages as hundreds of men, women and children boarded a boat in Libya, hoping to make it safely to Europe.
But after a couple of days at sea, in the dark of night Saturday, the ship was in distress in the Mediterranean and sent out an SOS.
As rescuers approached, the migrants — perhaps 700 people on board — moved to one side of their boat, hoping to be saved. Their movement caused the large, multilevel boat to capsize, sending the desperate crowd plunging into the frigid water, their chance of survival slim.
According to Maltese authorities, who are working with Italian rescuers, only around 50 of the 700 have been saved.
While the shipwreck was an accident, human traffickers facilitate risky trips like this, risking people’s lives by putting them on rickety ships in unpredictable waters.
“Gangs of criminals are putting people on a boat, sometimes even at gunpoint,” Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said. “They’re putting them on the road to death, really, and nothing else.”
It’s “genocide — nothing less than genocide, really,” Muscat told CNN.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said that the incident could be worse than an incident last week in which 400 refugees and migrants died in the Mediterranean.
“Our troops, together with the Italian navy, are literally looking through the bodies to try to find someone who’s still alive,” Muscat said of the latest incident at sea.
Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, told CNN that survivors were taken to Sicily.
The Italian Coast Guard, which is leading the rescue operation, reported that 28 survivors and 24 bodies have been recovered so far in the area about 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Libya.
Security for Libya’s borders is essential to “take out these criminal gangs — these terrorists,” Muscat said. The international community “cannot continue to turn a blind eye,” he added.
The leader of the international nonpartisan medical organization Doctors Without Borders had strong words Sunday for the tragedy. “A mass grave is being created in the Mediterranean Sea and European policies are responsible,” said the group’s president, Loris De Filippi. He compared the high number of deaths to “figures from a war zone.”
De Filippi called on European states to immediately launch large-scale search-and-rescue operations with proactive patrolling as close as possible to Libyan shores. “Faced with thousands of desperate people fleeing wars and crises, Europe has closed borders, forcing people in search of protection to risk their lives and die at sea,” he said. “This tragedy is only just beginning, but it can and should be stopped.”
Doctors Without Borders will begin its own rescue effort, he added, because “as a medical, humanitarian organization, we simply cannot wait any longer.”
EU: ‘Moral and humanitarian obligation to act’
French President Francois Hollande called for the European Union to help more in the rescue.
If the deaths are in the hundreds, he said, the accident could be “the worst disaster in recent years in the Mediterranean.”
Human Rights Watch urged the EU to act quickly. “The EU is standing by with arms crossed while hundreds die off its shores,” said Judith Sunderland, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These deaths might well have been prevented if the EU had launched a genuine search-and-rescue effort.”
The EU released a statement Sunday saying that it planned action down the road but didn’t detail any immediate plans to help with the search for the victims of this accident.
“The European Commission is deeply chagrined by the tragic developments in the Mediterranean today, but also over the past days and weeks. The reality is stark and our actions must therefore be bold. These are human lives at stake, and the European Union as a whole has a moral and humanitarian obligation to act,” it said.
The EU is consulting member states, European agencies and international organizations to prepare what it called a European Migration Strategy, which would be adopted in middle May.
It stressed the need to “address the situation at its roots.”
“And as long as countries of origin and transit do not take action to prevent these desperate trips, people will continue to put their lives at risk,” the statement read.
Many of the migrants who board ships to cross the Mediterranean are from sub-Saharan Africa, and travel for weeks just to get to the ships. They’re seeking a better life, but many are exploited by the traffickers who organize the voyages.
Already this year, more than 900 migrants are believed to have died while crossing the Mediterranean — far more than during the same period in 2014, the International Organization for Migration said Friday.
In one four-day period alone, more than 8,000 migrants were rescued, according to the Italian Coast Guard. On one day alone, SOS calls came in from 20 boats in distress.
Roberta Metsola, a Maltese member of the European Parliament, told CNN on Sunday that countries from Northern Europe need to share the responsibility with their southern neighbors.
“The people are going to continue to arrive,” she said. “The desperation subsists — there are almost a million people waiting to board boats and come to Europe to seek a better life. And that fact has to be recognized.”
Journalist Barbie Nadeau reported from Rome; CNN’s Jethro Mullen reported Hong Kong, and CNN’s Ashley Fantz, Josh Levs, Jessica King and Christine Theodorou reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Tina Burnside contributed to this report.