The EU's new leadership must boost air and naval power in the Mediterranean to rescue migrants who are dying in record numbers trying to reach the continent's shores, Amnesty International said Tuesday.
A new report by the British-based campaign group described a "Fortress Europe" blocking out migrants and refugees, many of them fleeing unrest in Syria and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
The report's release in Brussels came hours before the European parliamentary confirmation hearing of Dimitris Avramopoulos, Greece's incoming European Commissioner for migration and home affairs.
The International Organization for Migration said Monday that more than 3,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, more than double the previous peak in 2011.
"The EU and its member countries must urgently provide an increased number of search and rescue vessels in the central Mediterranean, with a clear mandate to save human lives on the high seas," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and central Asia program director.
Amnesty in particular expressed concern about whether the EU would fully replace "Mare Nostrum," a naval deployment that Italy launched after two deadly shipwrecks a year ago, but which Rome has threatened to end without more help.
"What is clear is that if Italy decides to significantly scale down or even stop (Mare Nostrum) altogether, before an operation of comparable scale is in place, many more lives will be lost at sea," a summary of the 80-page report said.
Amnesty said the capacity of the European border agency Frontex -- tapped to succeed Mare Nostrum at the end of November -- to provide search and rescue «remains in doubt» as it depends on the resources of member states.
It therefore called for "committing adequate financial, naval and aerial resources to Frontex" to boost the agency's search and rescue powers in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
Amnesty cited UNHCR figures showing that a total of 60,000 migrants and refugees reached EU shores by boat in 2013, up from an average of 40,000 a year in the previous 15 years.
Some 43,000 of them arrived in Italy in 2013.
Amnesty said the EU's tight land controls -- particularly along the Greek and Bulgarian borders with Turkey -- forced many migrants from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa to consider "a perilous sea crossing toward Italy or Malta."
At the same time the flow of migrants is increasing as war and conflict spread hit places like Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian territories and Libya, which is also the main departure point for Europe.
"Ultimately, the death toll in the Mediterranean will decrease only if safe and regular routes into the EU are opened," it said.