The European Commission threatened Italy with legal action Wednesday for possible breaches of the EU's rules on granting asylum, over Italy's treatment of migrants arriving from Africa on the island of Lampedusa.
A video showing migrants standing naked in the cold while being sprayed for scabies at a detention center stirred outrage in Italy on Tuesday.
Hundreds of people have died in recent months as refugees seek to enter Europe by boat through Lampedusa, an Italian island located off the coasts of Libya and Tunisia. The deaths have put the EU's migration policies front and center ahead of European elections next year.
The European Commission's home affairs chief, Cecilia Malmstrom, said the commission was investigating Italian practices in detention centers. The commission could take Italy, which bears the brunt of illegal immigration from North Africa, to court over its alleged lack of adherence to EU rules.
"The images we have seen from the detention center in Lampedusa are appalling and unacceptable," Malmstrom said. "We will not hesitate to launch an infringement procedure to make sure EU standards and obligations are fully respected."
EU leaders are due to discuss migration at a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, in response to the number of migrants drowning in recent months. Embarrassed by images of capsized fishing boats, floating corpses and shivering survivors on Europe's shores, EU leaders asked the European Commission to propose policy options to prevent such tragedies in future.
The EU leaders are expected to discuss options such as changing asylum rules that would allow people to ask for protection before actually reaching European soil. Other suggestions include beefing up border surveillance, boosting assistance to member states facing the biggest influx of migrants, enhancing measures to combat human trafficking and possibly accepting more refugees into the EU through resettlement programs.
The commission has also called on EU governments to give more support to the Frontex, the EU's border patrol agency. It has recommended, for example, reinforcing air and sea patrols on the Mediterranean Sea to detect and intercept migrant boats trying to reach European shores.
Nonetheless, EU member states are divided on how to deal with the problem.
Much of the debate centers on whether it would be better to focus border control efforts on rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean or on strengthening preventive measures and cooperation with countries in North Africa.
Some EU countries, including Denmark, Luxembourg, Greece and Spain, have cautioned that boosting EU search-and-rescue operations could persuade more migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing through the Mediterranean. Northern EU states argue they already grant asylum to more people than their southern neighbors.
Southern EU states, including Italy, have asked for what they see as a more equitable spread of the burden of dealing with migrants and more EU funding. Figures from late October showed that more than 13,000 people had sought asylum on Lampedusa this year — more than double the population of the island.
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels, said EU leaders needed a coherent approach to managed migration but member states were reluctant to take in even Syrian refugees in the greatest distress.
"European leaders need to go into the election campaign with a long-term policy on migration and not leave the issue to the populists," she said. "Some of the people voting for these populist parties are doing so because they feel there is a reluctance to talk about the issue."
More than 7,000 migrants may have perished at sea or while crossing deserts trying to reach a safe haven this year, believed to be the deadliest on record, said the International Organization for Migration.
Al Jazeera and wire services