On Thursday, European leaders will gather in Brussels to discuss new strategies in the wake of the latest disaster on Sunday, in which hundreds of migrants drowned when their boat capsized on the way from Libya to Italy.
Much of the political rhetoric has focused on the people smugglers operating along the North African coastline, described by Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi as "the slave traders of the 21st century".
An initial EU ministerial meeting on Monday called for a "civil-military" response, and British Prime Minister David Cameron is reportedly considering the deployment of one of the country's biggest warships in a bid to "go after the criminal gangs".
But experts see any attempt to tackle the problem militarily as doomed to fail.
"This problem is totally unsolvable with military means," Alain Coldefy, a retired French admiral, told AFP.
"Politicians have on several occasions asked me the question of what could be done to stop this trafficking by force, and the response is simple: nothing," he said.
"Once these boats loaded with migrants have left Libyan waters, we can only apply international rules, which means rescuing people."
Marines are not trained or equipped to launch operations against these kind of boats, Coldefy added. Nor do they have an option of firing on them.
"They talk about capturing and destroying migrant boats, but presumably they will have people onboard, so they're not going to just shoot them out of the water," said Matt Carr, the British author of "Fortress Europe" about the continent's treatment of migrants.
"Others say the only way to stop them is to destroy all the boats in Libya, which is obviously non-sensical," he added.
"How do you know what is a good boat or bad boat? Many are just fishermen seizing on a chance to make a living."
Other options appear even more unrealistic. A blockade of the Libyan coast, for instance, would be tantamount to a declaration of war, said Coldefy, and would be blocked by Russia at the UN Security Council.
Smugglers only a symptom
European leaders face near-impossible choices on the migrant issue. More than 1,750 people have died already this year trying to cross the Mediterranean, yet many thousands more will still risk the journey to escape war and misery.
"The underlying issues are conflict, oppression and poverty – you can't resolve that with a ten-point plan from Brussels," said Andrew Geddes, a migration expert at the University of Sheffield in Britain.
"Smuggling has become big business, but it is a symptom not the cause."
He said there are possible ways to mitigate disasters, but they require an unprecedented diplomatic effort.
Countries could work together to spread the burden of resettling refugees from war-torn areas such as Syria, he said, and offer temporary resettlement with a commitment to return to home countries when conditions improve.
"That might be more effective than a military response and if it was framed as a 'protection' programme, people in Europe might be more receptive," said Geddes.
Australia has saved lives by taking a more robust military approach since 2013, with the navy turning back asylum seekers or sending them to offshore processing centres on Pacific islands.
But rights groups accuse Australia of flouting international law and say its policies are only shifting the problem to its neighbours, which many of Europe's North African neighbours would be unwilling or unable to emulate.
The deeper problem, say critics, is a generational failing by European politicians to face up to the scale of the challenge – a new reality in which huge numbers of refugees and economic migrants are on the move towards the West.
"Governments have not gone to the necessary effort to explain to their electorates why migration happens or find imaginative ways to deal with it," said Carr.
"Focusing on the smugglers is deceptive and hypocritical – it's a side issue. These smugglers only exist to help people evade restrictions that Europe has put in place. You're making smugglers into some kind of enemy to be attacked," he added.
"For years governments tried to criminalize migration, and now they're taking the next step. You are militarizing a humanitarian crisis."