United Nations, April 20: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday called for a "comprehensive and collective" response to ensure "a robust search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean" after a boat capsize off the Libyan coast is believed to have killed nearly 700 migrants.
"The secretary-general is shocked and deeply saddened by reports that a ship carrying as many as 700 migrants and refugees has capsized off the Libyan coast," said a statement issued here by Ban's spokesman, according to a Xinhua report.
This disaster follows a similar tragedy last week, in which hundreds of other migrants and refugees are reported to have died, according to the statement.
"These are urgent reminders of the critical need for a robust search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean," it added. [Fury as 700 feared dead in 'avoidable' Mediterranean shipwreck]
Nearly 700 migrants are suspected to have drowned when a packed boat capsized in international waters south of Italy's Sicily island on Saturday night. Sicily is located in the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), out of the 700 people on board the ill-fated boat, around 50 people have been rescued.
If the toll is confirmed, it will bring the total number of people who died this year trying to reach Europe to 1,500.
This swelling exodus had prompted Europe to downsize its seek and rescue border protection programme in a bid to deter the migrants, reports said, though international aid groups strongly criticised the decision.
The majority of the migrants taking to the sea in an attempt to reach Europe are from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
At least 218,000 migrants tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea last year to enter Europe from its southern borders. Some 3,500 of them lost their lives in the attempt, the UNHCR said in a statement, adding that the trend is "expected to continue".
This made the Mediterranean the world's deadliest route used by asylum seekers and migrants, said the UN chief's statement, adding that their journeys were fraught with risks of discrimination, violence and exploitation, and they urgently needed protection.
"The secretary-general encourages European member states and the European Union (EU) to accelerate their ongoing efforts to comprehensively address the plight of those seeking refuge within their borders," the statement said.
"With record numbers fleeing war and persecution, more people are trying to reach Europe by boat and more lives are being lost," the statement added.
"The international response to this must be comprehensive and collective... The challenge concerns not only improved rescue at sea and access to protection. It is how to ensure the right to asylum of the growing number of people worldwide fleeing war, who need refuge and safe haven," it noted.
The UN chief recognised the heavy impact the arrival of so many migrants would have on Italy. He appealed to the international community for solidarity and burden sharing in the face of this crisis.