ROME — A boat packed with hundreds of migrants trying to reach Europe sank in the Mediterranean Sea about 45 miles off the Libyan coast on Monday. At least 14 people died, but more than 200 were rescued in an operation led by the Italian Navy.
Officials would not estimate the number of people who were still missing because it was unclear how many people had been aboard the vessel. The nationality of the migrants was not immediately made public.
Italian officials said that military and merchant ships searching the waters where the vessel went down had found 14 bodies, though “the number was not definitive.”
The rescue operation was conducted under an Italian military and humanitarian program called Mare Nostrum, Latin for “our sea,” the Roman name for the Mediterranean. The program is meant to control the flow of migrants who try to enter Europe by boat, and to assist vessels in distress. It has been monitoring the southern Mediterranean since last October, after a boat sank off the small Italian island of Lampedusa and 350 migrants died.
The Mare Nostrum program has come under political attack in recent weeks because of a surge in migrants reaching Italy, putting a severe strain on the government’s resources for receiving them. Critics said that about 9 million euros ($12.4 million) a month was too costly and not effective enough: as of Monday, 36,627 migrants had landed along Italy’s southern coast in 2014, according to Interior Ministry statistics. Most came from Africa or the Middle East.
Italy has been calling on the European Union to do more to help the country deal with the inflow, and Angelino Alfano, the interior minister, added his voice on Monday. “Europe isn’t helping us,” he said, according to ANSA, the Italian news agency. “While Italy was saving survivors of the shipwreck,” he added, Europe “must take care of the living.”
Roberta Pinotti, the defense minister, told Parliament last week that since it began last October, Mare Nostrum had saved the lives of 27,790 migrants, including more than 3,000 children, and had arrested 207 people for human trafficking. “The numbers are shocking,” Ms. Pinotti told lawmakers, “but let’s think of how tragic the count of the loss of human lives could have been.”
Flavio Di Giacomo, the Italian spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said that “Mare Nostrum has saved many lives, but it’s clear that these trips are dangerous, so shipwrecks are not possible to avoid.”
Nine out of 10 refugees who enter Italy by sea pass through Libya, a former Italian colony and the closest part of North Africa to Italian territory, Ms. Pinotti said. More than two-thirds of them could qualify for political refugee status.
The flood of migrants is a major issue in Italy, one that the populist Northern League has made a cornerstone of its campaign in the European Parliament elections later this month. One candidate created a video in which migrants from various countries are seen warning their compatriots that Italy is not the Promised Land and that the traffickers who would smuggle them across the sea by boat “are assassins and fraudsters.”
Correction: May 13, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the defense minister of Italy. The minister, Roberta Pinotti, is a woman.