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Migrant tragedy in Mediterranean Sea highlights crisis

As the death toll mounts following the latest migrant disaster in the Mediterranean this weekend, the tragedy has highlighted Europe's urgent need to tackle the growing crisis in the region.

Hundreds are feared dead after a boat bound for Europe carrying migrants capsized and sank off the Libyan coast on Sunday.

Only 28 people have been saved and 24 bodies found, the Italian coastguard said on Sunday, but one of the survivors is reported to have informed Italian authorities that there were up to 950 people on board.

Rescued migrants watch as the body of person who died after a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, is brought ashore along with 23 others retrieved by the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta on April 20, 2015.
Matthew Mirabelli | AFP | Getty Images

In common with other recent migrant disasters, it is reported that the boat capsized when the migrants sighted a ship they hoped would save them and all moved to one side of the boat, unbalancing it.

If the death toll is confirmed, it will bring the total number of people who have died from similar disasters this year alone to around 1,500.

What is Europe's migrant crisis?

The tragedy has prompted widespread calls for emergency talks on the immigration crisis in Europe and for urgent investment in disaster-prevention efforts.

The International Organization for Migration's Director-General, William Lacy Swing, also said in a statement Sunday that Europe and other countries needed to act.

"The world needs to react with the conviction with which it eliminated piracy off the coast of Somalia a few years ago," Swing said in a statement on the IOM's website.

"All of us, especially the EU and the world's powers, can no longer sit on the sidelines watching while this tragedy unfolds in slow motion and well over 1,500 have drowned since the beginning of January."

In 2014, the IOM published a study in which it estimated that up to 3,072 would-be migrants died in the Mediterranean last year, compared with an estimate of 700 in 2013.

On Monday, there were media reports of another boat in distress on the Mediterranean with more than 300 migrants on board and around 20 fatalities.

The large increase in deaths recently has largely been driven by a surge in the number of fatalities in the Mediterranean region, the IOM said, although migration and its risks are not new to the region.

Since 2000, over 22,000 migrants have lost their lives trying to reach Europe, the body estimated, with conflict, persecution and poverty in northern Africa and the Middle East, in countries like Syria, key drivers of migration attempts.

Over 112,000 irregular migrants were detected by Italian authorities in the first eight months of 2014, almost three times as many as in all of 2013.

Emergency talks

European leaders are increasingly concerned that the region cannot cope with the influx, or respond fast enough when those attempts go terribly wrong.

Following Sunday's disaster, several government leaders called for emergency talks and as the European Union (EU)'s Foreign Affairs Council met in Luxembourg on Monday, foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said the focus of talks was to "build together a common sense of European responsibility on what is happening in the Mediterranean, knowing that there is easy or magic solution."

Mogherini added that both foreign and interior ministers must share the duty in tackling the "presence at sea and sharing the responsibility in welcoming refugees and migrants."

European Council President Donald Tusk said he was considering calling a special meeting of EU leaders, a summit that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had called for earlier.

Italy, Greece worst hit

Countries like Italy and Greece bear the largest burden of the region's migrant crisis, as both are close to North Africa and the latter is near to the Middle East as well. Hence, these countries are often the first port of calls for people smugglers' migrant boats – which are often unseaworthy and overcrowded.

Italy and Greece are also dealing with deep economic crises, however, and have been struggling to fund large-scale search-and-rescue efforts for boat disasters.

Italy ended its "Mare Nostrum" maritime patrol program last October and the EU's replacement program, Triton, is primarily based on coastal border control rather than search-and-rescue missions.

Prior to Sunday's disaster, experts had warned that the reduced rescue program would not deter desperate people from making the dangerous sea crossing. Tellingly, while Mare Nostrum had a budget of 9.5 million euros ($10.2 million) a month, Triton's monthly budget is estimated to be only 2.9 million euros.

CNBC contacted the Frontex agency, which is in charge of Triton, to ask whether it was considering increasing resources to tackle human trafficking, but has not yet received a response.

What must be done?

On Sunday, Pope Francis appealed to the international community to take rapid action to avoid more tragedies, telling his regular audience in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City that the victims were "men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life."

On the same day, France's President Francois Hollande said the EU had to do more, telling Canal+ television that rescue and disaster prevention efforts needed " a much more intense battle against people trafficking," Reuters reported.

"I make a heartfelt appeal to the international community to react decisively and quickly to see to it that such tragedies are not repeated," Hollande said.

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt. Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld