More than 300 people died trying to cross the sea from Africa to Italy this week, the U.N. refugee agency has said, adding pressure on Europe to expand a border operation that lacks a clear mandate to save lives.
The high number of deaths, including 29 people who died of hypothermia on the deck of an Italian coast guard boat, hours after being pulled from the water, has re-ignited criticism of Italy's decision last year to end a full-scale search and rescue mission.
Among the latest incidents, an Italian tug boat rescued nine people, the only known survivors from two boats that sank, and brought them to the Italian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday. More than 200 people remain unaccounted for.
Italy Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, said the disaster highlighted the state of near-anarchy in Libya, where people smugglers can charge up to $2,000 for the crossing.
And the situation is getting worse in Europe. Italy has recorded at least 50 migrant deaths this year, compared with 12 by this point last year, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva, Switzerland.
The migrants' primary country of origin? Syria, where millions have tried to flee the country's four-year civil war.
Syrians accounted for 22% of the migrants arriving in Italy in January, Edwards said.