As more migrants drown in the Mediterranean and anti-immigrant sentiment on the continent continues to rise, what will Europe’s leaders do?

By Vivienne Walt 

Abu Mohammed was in the living room of the apartment he had rented for himself and his family in the Egyptian city of Agami on April 19 when news broke on the television of a tragedy on the Mediterranean. A boat carrying about 800 migrants from Libya to Europe had sunk. Only 28 people survived. Abu Mohammed and his wife were shocked. But the disaster resonated with them in a painfully personal way: their 18-year-old son Mohammed had left three days earlier to make his own crossing in a smuggler’s boat to Europe. They had heard nothing from him since. “We were afraid. We prayed to God to save him,” says Abu Mohammed, a refugee from Syria who, along with millions of others, has been displaced from his home by that country’s civil war. (Like many who still have family in Syria, he requested that his full name not be published for fear of retribution. Abu Mohammed means father of Mohammed.)

Several long days later, Mohammed called from Milan. He had made it safely to Italy and was planning to head to France by car, then onward to seek a new life in Germany. His parents were relieved—and, in spite of the tragedy, resolved to soon find another smuggler’s boat to take them and their two young daughters to join Mohammed in Germany. “We will take this trip in order to save a future for our children,” says Abu Mohammed’s wife Umm Mohammed (meaning mother of Mohammed).

That undiminished determination to escape war and persecution and to seek a better life is shared by growing numbers of people from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia whose push to reach Europe is creating a moral and political crisis for the European Union. The tragedy of April 19 brought the nature of that crisis into sharp focus: Europe’s spirit of tolerance appeared to have been trumped by an increasingly influential strain of anti-immigrant politics. With the number of migrants making the hazardous sea crossing this summer expected to rise sharply, Europe’s leaders have struggled to find solutions that can accommodate both the political pressures they face at home and their legal and moral duties to provide shelter to those making for their shores.

In response to the tragedy of April 19, the E.U.’s 28 national leaders convened an emergency meeting in Brussels on April 23 and agreed to new measures to help save lives on the Mediterranean. They pledged to triple the funding for boats and helicopters around Europe’s southern coastlines, streamline legal immigration procedures and support U.N.-led efforts to re-establish authority in war-torn Libya, which has become the jumping-off point for most of the boats carrying migrants to Europe. Britain and France are also working to secure a U.N. mandate to capture and destroy the smugglers’ vessels in Libyan waters before they can be used. “The situation in the Mediterranean is a tragedy,” E.U. leaders said in a statement after the meeting. “Our immediate priority is to prevent more people from dying at sea.”

Refugee agencies argue the measures do not go far enough. They say political leaders seem more concerned about keeping migrants out of Europe than keeping them safe, at a time when anti-immigration parties are soaring in popularity. Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director John Dalhuisen decried the E.U. summit proposals as “a face-saving not a life-saving operation.” Critics also say the new measures are a sign of continuing divisions within Europe about how to absorb migrants. Under European law, the first country that an asylum seeker arrives in is responsible for documenting and hearing his or her application; if successful, the claimant has the right to remain only within that country. Southern European countries, especially Italy, Malta and Greece, receive the majority of migrants. Overwhelmed with the task of housing and processing the new arrivals, they are pushing northern countries, like Britain and the Netherlands, to change the rules and take in more refugees. So far those countries have demurred, although one of the new E.U. measures includes plans to deploy teams to Italy and Greece to help them process the applications.

The new measures constitute a shift away from decisions the E.U. made last year, when some national leaders began to argue that a well-funded search-and-rescue program called Mare Nostrum, run by the Italian navy, was actually encouraging thousands of migrants to board smugglers’ boats, confident that they would be rescued by the Italians if they got into trouble on the sea. Italy scrapped Mare Nostrum in November, after the E.U. refused to help fund it, saying it was simply enriching smugglers and putting migrants at risk of drowning. “The haulers earned millions, and there were 3,000 deaths [last year],” German Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere said at the time. The E.U. replaced Mare Nostrum with its own program, Triton, with just one-third of the funding, limiting its own boats to patrolling within just 30 nautical miles of Europe’s coast.

The measures introduced at the E.U.’s April summit are about to be tested by the improving weather in the Mediterranean. As the seas become calmer, the number of boats heading toward Europe increases. Making matters worse, this crossing season threatens to be by far the deadliest on record. Last year, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a total of 219,000 people made the crossing; 3,500 died trying or are missing. Already this year, 46,000 people have made it to Europe, and 1,750 are dead or missing. The UNHCR and other agencies expect twice as many migrants to attempt to cross this year compared with last, as record high numbers of people flee their home countries and tighter border controls on land entice more of them to try the sea routes. The International Organization for Migration warns that if the current rates continue, 30,000 migrants could drown in the Mediterranean in 2015. Europe is facing a long summer of death and soul-searching.

Lessons of the Past

Europe is all too familiar with the kinds of tragedies that drive people from their homes. Indeed, international laws dealing with the world’s refugees were drafted in response to a catastrophe that took place at the heart of Europe: the Second World War. By the end of the war, the Nazis had killed some 6 million European Jews, and millions of others, displaced by the war, needed new homes. Soon after, the major world powers established organizations like the U.N. to promote international cooperation and hold governments to account. In 1950 the U.N. formed its refugee agency, the UNHCR, whose mandate had one legally binding rule: if persecuted people land in your country, you are obligated to protect and find lasting solutions for them.

Countries are not, however, legally required to give homes to economic migrants, those people seeking a better way of life who enter a wealthier country illegally. Separating the legitimate asylum seekers from those looking for work is a huge logistical, ethical and legal challenge for wealthy countries. Millions of migrants flee deadly conflicts, or possible arrest or death because of their faith, political beliefs or sexuality. Others are escaping crippling, even life-threatening, poverty. But only the first group could be granted refugee status under European law.

As the numbers of migrants of both sorts rise, rich countries are becoming less welcoming even to legitimate asylum seekers. No single catastrophe has prompted today’s crisis, but as of last summer, the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes surpassed 51 million, the most since the end of World War II. “It is unlikely that many governments would sign up to the [U.N. refugee] convention today,” said an Australian government report back in 2000, at a time when growing numbers of migrant boats from Asia were making for that country. “It was not designed with today’s mass refugee outflows or migratory movements in mind.” Australia’s tough immigration policies have blocked hundreds of boats in recent years—and since 2013 the government has refused to process any asylum claims of migrants arriving by boat, instead detaining them in Papua New Guinea or Nauru. In April, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott advised the E.U. to follow his country’s lead, saying, “The only way you can stop the deaths is, in fact, to stop the boats.”

Blame Game

Europe’s last attempt to stop the boats—by refusing to fund Italy’s Mare Nostrum program in November—failed. The migrants have continued to come and continue to drown. Some critics have accused European policymakers of being partly to blame for those deaths. “Europe is turning its back on some of the most vulnerable migrants in the world, and risk[s] turning the Mediterranean into a vast cemetery,” the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said after the April 19 shipwreck. “Migrant smugglers are the symptom, not the cause of this wretched situation.” To Europe’s leaders, however, the traffickers are little more than contemporary versions of slave traders. “It is not an exaggeration to say that what is happening in the Mediterranean today is a form of modern slavery,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told his Parliament on April 22.

Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean Catholic priest based in Switzerland, has for many years run an unofficial hotline for migrants, taking distress calls from boats on his mobile phone. His number is widely circulated among migrants. In the 12 months during which the Mare Nostrum program operated, Zerai said, he would note down the distressed boats’ GPS coordinates, then alert Italian and Maltese patrol vessels, which raced to save the migrants. “Before there was always some coast guard to rescue people,” he says. But the system has collapsed since November. “Now I call the coast guard and say, ‘Please go rescue these people,’ but they say they need time to move from Italy to international waters,” he says. “That means many, many hours. And in that time, people can die.”

Europe’s response to the April 19 disaster may result in faster rescues—and more lives saved. “We owe it to ­ourselves to do more,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the tragedy. “We will do everything to prevent further victims from perishing in the most agonizing way on our doorstep in the Mediterranean.”

Reasons to Flee

Arresting and detaining migrants is a drain on government resources in both the North African countries that send them and the European ones that receive them. Deporting people is harder still. For many migrants, both their homelands and their points of departure on the Mediterranean coast are effectively war zones. Most migrants squeeze aboard traffickers’ boats on the long coast of Libya, a country that is awash in weapons, has no functioning national government and is facing a civil war and the presence of an increasingly powerful terrorist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

After NATO bombed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in 2011, helping to bring an end to his 42-year rule, ­Libya was left in a state of chaos. Different parts of the country are now controlled by multiple warring militias and two rival governments, leaving smugglers and human traffickers to thrive in the vacuum.

Trafficking in Libya began to expand hugely in 2013 and 2014, when thousands of relatively well-off Syrians fleeing their own deadly civil war began offering to pay big sums to reach Europe by boat. “Until the Syrians came, it was not profitable enough to create the kind of networks and mass movements that we see now,” says Tuesday Reitano, head of the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

More than 170,000 people tried to make it from Libya to Europe last year. Syrians constituted the largest single nationality. The next biggest group hailed from Eritrea, which has one of the world’s most secretive and repressive governments. Among the thousands who have recently come from other African countries is a 28-year-old mechanic from Senegal named Mahmoud, who squeezed aboard a smuggler’s boat in Libya in mid-April and landed in Sicily two days later. “The route was very difficult and complicated,” he tells Time from Rome, where he is applying for refugee status because he was threatened and physically attacked in Senegal for being gay. He did not want his last name published for fear of complicating his asylum application. “It took a long time to reach here,” he says. Now, like thousands of others, his fate rests with E.U. officials.

On Mahmoud’s four-month journey from Senegal to Rome, traffickers controlled each step across thousands of kilometers of terrain; he estimates he paid smuggling gangs $2,130 from start to finish. His harrowing Mediterranean crossing—he endured two days jammed in a fishing boat with hundreds of other migrants—was only the final stage in a terrifying 3,600-km journey during which he spent several days crossing the Sahara with little to eat and drink and five weeks in a Libyan prison after police there arrested him for being in the country illegally.

Nonetheless, Mahmoud is alive, unlike hundreds of others whose Mediterranean crossings ended in death, and he has made it to Europe. He says he feels huge relief being in Italy. But his four-month journey has left him haunted and sleepless. So when Mahmoud’s friends back home tell him they too want to leave for Europe, he tells them, “Never, never, never go.’” Europe’s leaders are hoping that message is heard loudly across the region, by the huge numbers dreaming of anew life in the West.

Read this story on TIME Magazine.