In this image from TV, migrants crowd at the rail...

In this image from TV, migrants crowd at the rail aboard an Italian navy vessel as it cruises towards the Italian port of Messina, Saturday April 18, 2015. Credit: AP

The horrifying drowning deaths of hundreds of migrants whose ship sank in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to cross from Africa underscore Europe's illegal immigration crisis.

The death toll last year in the Mediterranean was nearly 3,300, part of a fast-rising tide of illegal immigration to the European Union. Migrants are fleeing conflict, poverty and repression in countries such as Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Chaos in Libya has given human smugglers a staging ground. Many in Europe are apathetic or hostile to this wave and the EU has been reluctant or unable to act. That must stop.

EU leaders meet Thursday to discuss the crisis. Some good proposals put forward yesterday include destroying smugglers' boats, and doubling spending on sea patrols and rescue operations. Working to improve conditions in migrants' home countries also would help.

Illegal immigration is a difficult problem, as we have seen in the United States. But continuing what the UN chief of human rights calls Europe's failure of governance and compassion is not an option.