VALLETTA (AFP) - Europe's only non-governmental rescue vessel set sail on Saturday from Malta, launching a six-month mission to reduce the number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.
The MV Phoenix, which last year saved 3,000 lives in just two months, will face an even tougher mission this year because of the spike in migrant crossings, said Martin Xuereb, director of the Migrant Offshort Aid Station (Moas).
Some 1,750 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean to Europe this year, 30 times more than during the same period in 2014.
This year, Moas has teamed up with Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF - Doctors without Borders) to operate the 40m vessel amid mounting criticism of authorities in Europe over the deaths at sea.
"This year's numbers speak for themselves," Xuereb said, adding that large numbers of migrants desperate to reach Europe have been risking their lives trying to cross even before spring weather arrived.
"We are better equipped but we expect a tougher challenge," Xuereb said.
The MV Phoenix is equipped with a €1 million (S$1.5 million) state-of-the-art drone that will be used to locate migrant boats.
On April 19, some 750 migrants were killed when their rickety trawler sank between Libya and southern Italy, sparking global outrage and demands for action on the string of deadly migrant shipwrecks.
A week later, EU leaders took the decision to triple funding for the Triton operation, which is run by the Frontex border agency, but which rights groups have criticised for its focus on surveillance rather than rescue.
EU leaders are seeking UN Security Council approval for military action against smugglers in chaos-ridden Libya.
MSF's Will Turner lashed out against the international community's failure to stop the deaths of migrants fleeing war and poverty.
"We expected action to be taken yet the rhetoric focuses more on smugglers and borders. The real focus should be on saving lives," Turner said.
"It is our business to save lives and alleviate their suffering. This is where we turn words into action," he added.
The number of migrants entering the EU illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via the Mediterranean.