, BRUSSELS, Oct 25 – Europe’s leaders sought how to deal with the drama of Mediterranean boat-people Friday, weeks after the deaths by drowning of 400 refugees fleeing conflict shocked many across the continent.
“Europe can neither save nor welcome the whole world,” the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, told a European Union summit.
“But we are the world’s richest continent and so must do more, specially if we act together, seek solutions together, and together take responsibility.”
Countries on the bloc’s southern fringe — Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Spain, and Croatia on the EU’s Balkans frontier, want difficult decisions on immigration to be taken by the 28-nation bloc.
But as anti-immigrant parties pick up support across the crisis-hit bloc, how to accomodate more foreigners while unemployment nudges record highs remains a politically-explosive question.
A draft statement on migration expressed “deep sadness at the recent and dramatic deaths of hundreds of people in the Mediterranean” but delayed key decisions to EU summit meetings in December and June 2014.
“Determined action should be taken in order to prevent the loss of lives at sea”, it said, as Italian authorities reported the rescue of 700 people off Sicily in several operations overnight Thursday to Friday.
“Europe cannot sit there and watch,” Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said as the EU’s economically-battered southern states pleaded with wealthier northern Europe to take up more of the burden.
Yet the lion’s share of refugees ultimately find shelter in northern Europe with Belgium, Britain, France, Germany and Sweden taking in 70 percent of those fleeing conflict.
To stop would-be migrants from perishing at sea, Italy wants the EU’s Frontex border agency to be strengthened and a new programme to share satellite and drone surveillance data, Eurosur, to be launched sooner than its scheduled December start .
Frontex reportedly saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean in the last two years but due to crisis-era belt-tightening has seen its budget fall from 118 million euros ($162 million) in 2011 to 85 million euros this year.
Italy meanwhile says migrant numbers increased fourfold this year to 30,000, Spain says twice as many Africans — 3,000 — have tried to slip through its barbed-wire exclave of Melilla in Morocco this year, and Bulgaria reports seven times as many people trying to cross its border illegally in 2013.
“Unless Europe’s approach to asylum and immigration changes, it won’t only be the migrants but the EU that drowns off Lampedusa,” said Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of the Italian island whose population of 6,000 has seen 13,000 people wash up on its shore this year.
Immigration charities estimate between 17,000 and 20,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe over the past 20 years, turning the Mediterranean, Schulz said, into “a graveyard.”
Other suggestions at the summit include steps to fight human trafficking and improve development aid to reduce illegal migration.
“Far too many people are dying every year at the EU’s external borders,” said Yves Pascouau of the European Policy Centre think-tank. “EU leaders cannot escape answering the remaining questions any longer.”
On October 3, 366 refugees from Eritrea and Somalia died off Lampedusa when their boat caught fire and capsized.
On October 12, a boat carrying families fleeing war in Syria sank off Malta, killing at least 36.