The European Union pleaded for extra funds from member countries to boost Mediterranean patrols across the entire sea in an effort to rescue any stricken boats loaded with asylum-seeking migrants from Africa and the Middle East.
Tuesday’s plea came as divers brought up more bodies from the 20-metre vessel that sank within sight of land last Thursday morning near the Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. The Tunisian boat captain, Bensalem Khaled, 35, was charged by Italian police with multiple murders, causing a shipwreck and aiding clandestine immigration. He was transferred to a Sicilian prison.
The death toll rose to 275 Tuesday when another 18 bodies were recovered from the interior of the boat and a body was spotted floating nearby. About 500 migrants were said to have been jammed into the small vessel. Since only 155 survived, divers expect to find as many as 70 more bodies.
Cecilia Malstrom, the EU commissioner for home affairs, said she has obtained support from EU interior ministers to bolster the resources of Frontex, the border patrol agency for the 28 countries within the union. Speaking just before the ministers met in Luxembourg, she said she would pitch a “Frontex operation right across the Mediterranean, from Cyprus to Spain, for a big save and rescue operation.”
While Italy supported the proposal, it may be an inadequate response to a problem that has all too often ended in tragedy. According to the International Organization for Migration, which was set up in 1951 to help resettle millions of people uprooted by the Second World War, at least 20,000 people have died trying to reach Italy’s shores since 1993.
In an interview, James Walston, professor of international affairs at the American University of Rome and commentator on Italian politics, called Ms. Malstrom’s Frontex proposal “very much PR dressing” that, if it comes to fruition, might actually encourage more illegal human trafficking from North Africa.
He said it appears that neither the Italians nor the wider EU know how they want to treat the migration problem. “We have to have a very clear debate about what we want,” he said. “Is it Fortress Europe? Do we want, in effect, to push the [EU] border onto the African continent? It appears no one wants an open border.”
The number of migrant arrivals has surged since late 2010 with the start of the Tunisian revolution that launched the Arab Spring and the violent uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Syria. In the first nine months of this year alone, 30,100 migrants reached Italy by boat from North Africa, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The biggest groups of migrants came from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia. The number from Libya is on the rise and a recent Frontex report said Libya “is the [EU’s] biggest concern” because it has emerged as the main departure point for migrants using boats to head to Italy.
In the final years of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, the number of migrant boats departing from Libya slowed considerably. That’s because former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi struck a deal with Col. Gadhafi that saw Libyan security forces crack down on traffickers and prevent the migrant boats from setting sail for Lampedusa and other parts of southern Italy.
With post-revolution Libya in turmoil, the Italian government has no ability to strike a new agreement to stop the boats. As Italian migrant camps fill up, Italy has allegedly encouraged the migrants to head to Northern Europe, where jobs are more plentiful. Germany earlier this year accused Italy of giving African migrants EU visas and €500 ($700) each so they could leave the country.
The Globe and Mail visited a Sicilian migrant camp during the height of the Libyan civil war in 2011 and found the migrants were free to leave the camp. The nearby roads were filled with migrants apparently making the trek north.
Italy, which is bearing the brunt of migrant exodus from North Africa, has not revealed exactly how it wants EU immigration and refugee policy to change. Italy has, however, complained for years that the EU is not doing enough to assist it in dealing with the waves of migrants and the all-too-regular boat tragedies.
On Tuesday, Italian deputy premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said: “Europe must do more to contribute to the saving of human lives. We are in the middle of the Mediterranean and we have saved thousands and thousands of lives. We now ask for some help from Europe.”
While Mr. Alfano praised Ms. Malstrom’s proposal to bolster Frontex, it was not clear which countries, if any, would provide the new resources, or what form the resources would take. Frontex has been starved of funding in recent years. Its EU funding fell to 85-million euros in 2012 from 120-million euros the year before as struggling EU countries reduced their budgets.