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Newest challenge for Europe's refugee crisis: crewless migrant ships (+video)

A ship carrying hundreds of refugees was rescued today off the coast of Italy, after its crew abandoned it. It was the second such incident this week, suggesting a foreboding new stage of an influx of migrants to Europe.

The fate of hundreds of migrants abandoned in the Mediterranean this week could foreshadow a treacherous year ahead as Europe struggles to address one of its worst refugee crises since World War II.

On Friday the Italian Air Force battled rough seas to rescue nearly 500 migrants stranded on the cargo ship Ezadeen, which is sailing with a Sierra Leone flag. It was some 40 miles off Italy’s southeastern tip when migrants aboard called for help, saying they were left without a crew to steer them to safety.

Earlier in the week, more than 700 migrants were rescued from another ship, the Blue Sky M, also believed to be abandoned by smugglers, after they were left to fend for themselves in the high seas. Most of those aboard were Syrians and Kurds.

The migrant influx to Europe typically peaks in the summer months. But the back-to-back incidents underscore civilians' desperation to escape the deadly conflicts in Iraq and Syria as well as inadequate EU enforcement that has emboldened human trafficking organizations, particularly from Libya. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 76,000 people died in Syria in 2014, including some 3,500 children. That marks the deadliest year since the conflict began in 2011. And human smuggling networks are taking root across Europe. France’s right-leaning Le Figaro reported today, based on an exclusive report, that the police in France have dismantled nearly 230 criminal groups linked to illegal immigration in 2014 – 30 percent more than two years prior.

Many fear the hand of human traffickers will grow stronger, especially as EU solidarity towards refugees and migrants is tested by disputes over burden-sharing and a growing public and political backlash.

European countries on the southern frontier, notably Italy, have shouldered the initial burden of receiving refugees. But the north assimilates the most migrants and refugees. A largely welcoming Germany, for example, has taken in the vast majority of Syrians, but that has given rise to a new anti-immigration movement called Pegida, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel took to task in her annual New Year’s address. “Do not follow people who organize [such movements], for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate,” she said.

Still, movements such as Pegida or right-wing populists condemning the influx could dampen political will to solve the problems. “There has been an overall chill across Europe amongst policymakers, politicians, and publics towards immigration and asylum policy,” Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, said earlier this summer.

Now the situation looks even bleaker. When more than 360 refugees drowned after their boat sank off the island of Lampedusa in Italy in 2013, the Italian government launched a rescue operation called Mare Nostrum. Facing high costs and criticism that the program was inadvertently prompting more refugees to try to reach Europe’s shores, Italy demanded the EU take over the operation, which it did on Nov. 1. Now called Triton and run through the EU’s border control agency Frontex, it is much smaller in scale. And human rights activists worry that it means a deadlier passage for desperate economic migrants and refugees.

The reality of life aboard such ships is grim. “The poorer migrants, who are generally black Africans, pay $500 to $800 for a space in the hold. The wealthier refugees, many of whom are middle-class Syrians, pay up to $2,500 to ensure a place on deck,” Ewa Moncure, a spokeswoman for Frontex  told The Christian Science Monitor's Nick Squires, who joined a Triton mission in November. “For the people in the hold, if the boat goes down, forget it – they die.”

The UN reported in June that 50 million had fled their homes this year because of war and persecution, the highest number of forcibly displaced persons since World War II.

Pope Francis criticized Europe for its inadequate response during a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, with 3,000 migrants having died this year in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, according to the United Nations refugee agency. That was five times as many as in the same time period in 2013.

"We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery," the pope said during his November visit. "The absence of mutual support within the European Union runs the risk of encouraging ... solutions, which fail to take into account the human dignity of immigrants, and thus contribute to slave labor and continuing social tensions."

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