Survivors of Europe's most deadly migrant shipwreck in years have described the horrifying moment traffickers capsized their boat and left them to drown, as the EU cried murder and vowed to step up the fight against people smugglers.
Fresh witness testimony confirmed around 500 people drowned after their boat sank off Malta on Wednesday, including up to 100 children who had been making the treacherous journey from Egypt to Italy, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.
"After they hit our boat they waited to make sure that it had sunk completely before leaving. They were laughing," one survivor told the Geneva-based organisation.
According to the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR), over 2,500 people have drowned or gone missing attempting the crossing in 2014, and in several separate incidents survivors have spoken of traffickers overfilling rickety boats or locking people below decks to suffocate.
"These are not accidents but murders. We'll increase and intensify our efforts to fight human trafficking," said Michele Cercone, spokesman for EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.
"This latest tragedy shows that despite the efforts put in place we'll witness these kind of problems as long as the pitiless smugglers who are the real criminals behind this are free to act," he said.
Malmstrom said the European Commission was "already working on a EU plan to tackle migrant smuggling," but insisted member states must be "willing... to create more legal ways to Europe, such as accepting more resettled refugees."
'Forced into the water'
In the incident off Malta, just 10 people survived. Two Palestinians were taken to Italy, two to Malta, while the other six, including a two year-old Syrian girl, were taken to hospital in Crete. The toddler remains in a critical condition.
The Palestinians, aged 27 and 33, told IOM their boat had been intentionally sunk by the people smugglers after the migrants refused to change to a smaller, less seaworthy vessel – a story corroborated by the survivors in Crete.
"A violent argument ensued. The 10 smugglers, said to be Palestinian and Egyptian, began yelling," the IOM said, citing the latest testimony from Greece.
The enraged traffickers "rammed" the boat which "began to sink immediately, while the smugglers stayed in the area until they were certain that the migrant's vessel had sunk," it said.
Those who had managed to jump to safety into the smaller boat were "forced into the water" by their assailants.
"When the boat was first struck, one of the passengers killed himself in despair by hanging," one of the survivors said.
The Greek coast guard said the toddler's parents had passed her in the water to a 19-year-old Syrian woman because she was wearing a lifejacket, while they went to search for another of their children. The woman and child survived, the parents did not.
IOM said the Palestinians were rescued on Thursday, while the rest were not picked up until Friday – after two days in the water.
"The mounting death toll is a blight on the reputation of the EU and its member states who must urgently act together, now, to ensure that no more men, women and children lose their lives," said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International.
"With hundreds of thousands fleeing war and poverty across the Middle East and Africa, the priority must be to protect lives rather than creating an impenetrable fortress," he said.
'Trapped below deck'
The Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian and Sudanese migrants had set out from Damietta in Egypt on September 6.
Four bus loads of migrants were loaded onto the boat, which was between 15 and 18 metres (50 to 60 feet) long, until there were some 300 people crammed below deck and 200 on top – including up to 100 children, the IOM said based on the survivors' reports.
"The 300 people who were in the lower deck were trapped and drowned immediately. The survivors say they watched as those thrown in the water clung to each other trying to stay alive," it said.
The two Palestinian survivors, who have requested asylum in Italy, said they paid a "travel office" in Gaza $2,000 (1,544 euros) each for the trip, with the money coming from grants they had been given to rebuild their homes.
While the EU said it was keen to prosecute traffickers, Cercone pointed out that their operational bases were outside European Union territory, "making it very difficult to track them and crack down on them."
He urged greater partnerships with North African countries in the fight against people smugglers, but acknowledged that with countries like Libya mired in unrest and political chaos, the task is no easy one.