EU pushes to boost patrols for immigrants in Mediterranean

European commissioner calls for increased safety after hundreds die when ship sinks near Italy

Immigrants are detained in a temporary center on Oct. 8, 2013, in Lampedusa, Italy. The search for bodies continues off the coast of southern Italy as the death toll of African migrants is expected to climb over 300.
2013 Getty Images

E.U. ministers met Tuesday to discuss implementing patrols across the Mediterranean for boats carrying refugees to European shores, after at least 250 people drowned when a vessel capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Just hours before the ministers met, three boats carrying migrants reached the shores of the Italian island of Sicily, a vessel carrying 141 Syrians was rescued off Pozzalla, and a ship carrying 263 Syrians and Palestinians was rescued near Catania.

E.U. Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom went into talks with the bloc's home affairs ministers, saying she would propose an operation run by Frontex, the E.U.'s border-management agency. She said it would be a "search and rescue operation … right across the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain."

"I'm going to ask for the backing and the resources needed to do this, to save more lives," Malmstrom said.

An immediate response

The shipwreck off Lampedusa last week has thrown the divisive question of migration to the front of the E.U.'s political agenda.

Frontex, which polices the 28-nation bloc's borders against illegal migration, is reported to have saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean over the last two years.

Malmstrom, who will visit the site of the Lampedusa disaster Wednesday with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, will ask the ministers to beef up cash contributions to Frontex and lend it ships and aircraft.

Set up in 2004 to coordinate and improve border management and run joint operations, the agency, based in Warsaw, Poland, has seen its budget fall over the past three years.

Because of crisis-era belt-tightening, Frontex's budget has slipped from 118 million euros ($160 million) in 2011 to 90 million euros in 2012 and 85 this year.

A Frontex operation "will be a concrete show of solidarity by European nations and an immediate response to Lampedusa," an E.U. diplomat said.

Italy complains that the battered economies of Southern Europe — including Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Spain — are left to cope with the influx of refugees traveling to their shores or slipping across the porous border with Turkey.

Rome, which says 30,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year — four times as many as usual — wants wealthier Northern European countries to share the burden and migration to be put on the agenda of a summit in Brussels at the end of the month.

Malmstrom agreed on the need for more burden sharing, saying that only six to seven nations take responsibility for the problem and adding that "we are 28 member states."

But ministers from Denmark, Germany and Sweden firmly denied that their governments are turning their backs on people seeking asylum from political torment or economic misery.

Germany was Europe's most generous nation toward asylum seekers, said its Home Affairs Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich. It takes in nearly 950 refugees per million inhabitants, compared with Italy's almost 260 refugees per million inhabitants.

Last year more than 70 percent of the 330,000 asylum seekers in Europe were registered in five E.U. nations: 77,500 in Germany, 60,600 in France, 44,000 in Sweden and 28,000 each in Britain and Belgium.

Many of those people arrived by plane, often on short-term tourist visas, or by land.

Austria's Internal Affairs Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner agreed that there must be more sharing. "All the countries with low asylum quotas must take action," she said.

The search continues

As the ministers met in Brussels, divers brought up more bodies off Lampedusa as they resumed the grueling search for the more than 200 still missing after the ship sank with 500 Eritrean and Somali refugees on board.

Rescuers have pulled 155 people from the sea, and so far the death toll stands at 250. The final toll is expected to be 300 to 360.

The captain of the boat has been arrested on charges of multiple murders, causing a shipwreck and aiding clandestine immigration.

Coast Guard Capt. Filippo Marini said the search would continue as long as weather allows. Just 155 migrants, most from Eritrea, survived the shipwreck.

Al Jazeera correspondent Claudio Lavanga contributed to this report. With wire services. 

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