Targeting criminal networks of human traffickers, deploying increased maritime search and rescue efforts, tripling budgets and introducing refugee quotas for member states are just part of a new ten-point response from the EU to the growing immigration crisis in the Mediterranean.
The European agenda on migration, to be unveiled today in Brussels, is the 28-nation bloc’s latest proposed action plan to handle migration across the EU, in particular the current emergency in the Mediterranean, one of the biggest flows of migrants since the Second World War.
EU foreign and interior ministers tabled the plan on 20 April after more than 1,150 migrants from Africa and the Middle East drowned in the Mediterranean in April alone. So far this year some 1,830 people have died making the crossing, eight times more than in the equivalent period in 2014, said the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The Agenda on Migration’s ten-point plan will see a tripling of the budget for Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, giving it more money, assets and operational area of responsibility in the Mediterranean. The EU’s foreign policy and security chief, Federica Mogherini, is also seeking support from the UN Security Council for a draft resolution to take action against criminals running people-trafficking gangs, and the boats they use.
But the legalities and practicalities of confronting smugglers in the territorial waters of war-ravaged countries such as Libya – currently split between two governments – will prove enormous and potentially confrontational.
Some 35,000 people have arrived in Italy this year as refugees seeking asylum, many of them rescued at sea by naval and coast guard vessels from Italy, Britain, France and other EU countries. Two-hundred thousand could arrive by the end of the year.
The majority come from Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea and Syria, and land on Italian territory closest to the African coastline from which they sail in unseaworthy boats, arriving on the island of Lampedusa and in southern Sicily.
The EU migration plan will include a proposed scheme under which a quota of some 20,000 refugees will be split across each member state according to such factors as GDP, population and unemployment.
Countries such as Italy, Germany, Austria and Sweden, which take a large percentage of current EU asylum seekers, support the plan, which must be agreed upon by all EU member states. Britain opposes it.
The IOM has called for an “international investigation” after an Italian navy unmanned submersible vehicle discovered a damaged vessel 1,100 feet underwater, 85 nautical miles north east of Libya’s coastline. Italian authorities believe this is the same boat lost on 18 April, with as many as 800 passengers on board, according to 28 survivors later evacuated to Italy.
“The number of migrants departing who have up to now been trapped in Libya is soaring,” says IOM Libya chief of mission Othman Belbeisi in Tripoli.
“This is partly due to calmer seas that are encouraging people to take the voyage. Many migrants are using any kind of boat that can float and as a result the number of migrants perishing at sea is soaring.”
In the first four months of 2015, IOM has also registered a threefold increase in the number of Nigerian women being rescued, amid fears they were being trafficked into the sex trade in Italy.
Federico Soda, director of the IOM co-ordination office for the Mediterranean in Rome, said that IOM was “looking forward to learning what the European Union will propose to end the terrible tragedies”, adding “no more lives should be lost at sea”.