A year after a boat carrying more than 500 North African migrants sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa, European leaders held a summit Friday in Luxembourg to plan ways to avert similar tragedies.
European Union Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) ministers at the two-day meeting grappled with proposed measures to strengthen border surveillance, fight human trafficking, help migrants resettle in Libya and form partnerships with North African countries to stem the flow of migrants.
The EU has committed to taking in 15,000 refugees this year, up from about 5,000 in 2012, but the European Commission has noted that the number of EU member states which have agreed to take in such refugees remains “limited.”
So far this year more than 165,000 migrants made the perilous journey to Europe. A record 32,000 people from Syria have crossed the Mediterranean to flee the country’s devastating civil war, boarding rickety boats from Libya en route to Italy. Other countries of origin include Eritrea, Mali, Nigeria, Gambia, Palestine and Somalia, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The flow of migrants shows no signs of abating, the organization said, even after the sinking of another vessel near Malta in September killed more than 500. About 350 died in the Lampedusa incident.
Many migrants from other countries have been heading to Libya as a point of departure to Europe. In May, authorities in Tripoli warned the EU that unless it helps them deal with the situation, Libya would “facilitate” the passage of more migrants to Europe. The collapse in recent years of civil institutions in Libya, combined with continuing political turmoil in the Middle East, has given free rein to human smugglers who charge exorbitant fees for a ticket across the Mediterranean.
“This is a perfect storm for criminal groups,” said IOM spokesman Joel Millman.
Human rights groups this week criticized the EU for not doing more to ensure safe passage for migrants, a year after the Lampedusa tragedy drew international condemnation of the way the migration crisis is being handled. In July Pope Francis visited the island and urged leaders to do more, but Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the response has so far been shameful.
“This week’s JHA Council will be a litmus test of the EU and the member states’ commitments and obligations under international law to save lives at sea,” Judith Sunderland, HRW's Europe researcher, said in a statement.
Mare Nostrum, Italy’s new border patrol and rescue program, has contributed to saving thousands of lives off its coast since last October according to the European Commission — but many feel its efforts have not been enough.
“The EU’s focus must first and foremost be on ensuring comprehensive and collective search and rescue measures that effectively and immediately protect and save the lives of migrants and refugees in the world’s most dangerous sea route,” Sunderland said.
Italy has been pressuring EU member states to change the bloc’s immigration policies. Under the current setup the country of first arrival is responsible for handling asylum claims — a situation that places a disproportionate burden on coastal nations such as Italy, Greece and Spain, where immigrants are sometimes forced to squat in abandoned homes in poorer suburbs of major cities.
The European Commission committed $50 million in emergency funding to Italy to relieve the pressure of the migrant influx on Lampedusa, which the commission described as “particularly high.”
But implementing more substantive changes is hampered by austerity cuts and the steady rise of right-wing parties in Europe — most notably in France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, where an increasingly hostile attitude toward immigrants has pushed the item off the agenda, according to HRW.