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EU pledges more ships, money to stem migrant deaths

But measures are woefully short of comprehensive reform and will not end spiral of drownings, rights groups say

As European Union leaders convened an emergency meeting Thursday following a spate of mass migrant drownings in the Mediterranean Sea, experts warned that the recent deaths of 900 people off the coast of Libya is unlikely to result in a comprehensive immigration policy that resettles refugees attempting to reach European shores.

EU leaders emerged from meetings in Brussels with the promise to commit extra ships and helicopters to save lives in the Mediterranean. They also agreed to use law enforcement to collect intelligence on smugglers.

But their most important commitments, say analysts, is the promise to triple funding for Triton, the EU border operation that patrols the sea — to $9.7 million monthly — and to set up a refugee resettlement program that would offer housing to 5,000 asylum seekers, according to a draft EU statement seen by Al Jazeera.

An EU official who wanted to remain anonymous said the number was “just a starting point” and was likely to go up. The resettlement program would require member states to take in refugees on a voluntary basis, however, and no country had made any pledges at the summit’s conclusion.

The United Nations criticized the EU's draft proposal as a missed opportunity to help people fleeing war and poverty. Rights group Amnesty International slammed the Brussels meeting for not doing more to help refugees resettle. A proposal that attracted particular scorn would allow the EU to destroy vessels in Libya before they are used to traffic humans.

The EU proposals “are a woefully inadequate and shameful response to the crisis in the Mediterranean and will fail to end the spiral of deaths at sea," Amnesty said in a statement.

Thursday’s meeting comes after 900 migrants drowned off the Libyan coast last week as they were being smuggled in a single boat from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Sudan. Their deaths added to the skyrocketing toll: 3,072 migrants and asylum seekers who are believed to have died in 2014 making the dangerous journey in rickety boats.

The EU draft’s four major points focus on strengthening Triton’s presence at sea, fighting human traffickers in Libya and along North African smuggle routes, boosting border control — a measure that would include beefing up return programs for migrants whose asylum application were rejected — and distributing the burden of resettlement and processing asylum applications more equally across European member states.

Italy, Greece and Malta, the three countries that receive the bulk of the 100,000 or so migrants and asylum seekers, have harshly criticized EU migrant policy. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Thursday said he was confident Rome would no longer be left alone in sheltering refugees and migrants, many of whom live in abandoned buildings and makeshift camps on the city’s outskirts.

But the draft refrains from expanding Triton’s mission to performing search-and-rescue operations like its predecessor, Mare Nostrum, which was credited with saving up to 100,000 people from the often harrowing journey by employing a fleet of helicopters, boats and planes at a cost of $10 million per month. Shutting down the program six months ago, following criticism it was encouraging migrants to reach Europe, primed the EU for “a crisis of its own making,” said Justin Gest, public policy professor at George Mason University and co-founder of the Migration Studies Unit at the London School of Economics.

“Unfortunately public attitudes toward immigration tend to be very shortsighted and not to be very generous,” said Gest.

On Wednesday, the Dutch parliament, in a vote reflective of populist pressures against immigration, chose to deny shelter to asylum seekers who refuse to cooperate when their cases are rejected, prompting protest from Amnesty International, which called the regulation a violation of European human rights law.

When in 2013 about 500 migrants drowned near Lampedusa, an island off the Italian coast, the incident didn’t result in significant policy changes despite calls by Pope Francis to solve the crisis on a visit to the island.

Since then, thousands more have died on the perilous crossing, up from an estimated 700 drownings in 2013, according to the U.N.’s International Organization of Migration. European Council President Donald Tusk, during Thursday’s meeting in Brussels, said a solution to the crisis will not present itself immediately. "We cannot. The real causes are war, instability and poverty in the whole region," he said.

With Reuters

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