European Union

UN calls on Europe to act to end migrant drowning tragedies

Migrants arriving in Italy after being rescued on 20 April 2015
Migrants arriving in Italy after being rescued on 20 April 2015 Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

Europe can prevent further tragedies like the deaths of 700 migrants in the Mediterranean on Sunday, a UN refugee agency official has told RFI, as European foreign and interior ministers met in Luxembourg to discuss how to tackle the growing number of shipwrecks of crowded boats on their way to Europe from Africa.


The foreign ministers discussed the situation in war-torn Libya, now a major transit point for people from all over Africa and the Middle East trying to get to Europe.

Exploited by people smugglers, thousands take to the sea in rickety boats at the mercy of the elements and prone to capsize.

With only 28 people surviving the latest shipwreck off Libya on Sunday, the European Union decided to react to the situation.

The International Organisation for Migration  said it had received Monday a distress call from another boat carrying more than 300 people, with at least 20 reported dead.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat described the shipwreck as "a game changer", adding: "If Europe doesn't work together history will judge it very badly."

EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini also called for immediate action.

The EU has run out of excuses for failing to halt the flood of migrants, she said.

Greece, Malta and Italy – all in or bordering the Mediterranean - are dealing with most of the refugees.

Some 11,000 migrants have been rescued since the middle of last week and current trends suggest last year's total of 170,000 landing in Italy is likely to be exceeded in 2015.

Officials there have been calling for a long time for a review of European rules.

“The search and rescue capacity of the EU needs to be reinforced,” William Spindler of the UN's refugee agency UNHCR told RFI.

Last year Italy scaled back its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation because of the rising cost and it was replaced by a smaller EU-led mission called Triton.

“The second thing we want from the EU is to have the possibility for refugees to come in legal, safe ways, so they don’t have to risk their lives,” Spindler explained. “We would like the EU as a whole to receive in the next two years 130,000 refugees. The third thing is that the EU needs to help the countries who are handling the most refugees.”

But Yves Pascouau the Director of Migration and Mobility Policies at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, told RFI “The European Union has already adopted measures in order to check its borders and cope with migrants.

“There is the operational side of the policy, which is called Frontex and coordinates the land and sea border checks,” he said. “The other set of measures is financial support to either new member states facing a huge influx of migrants or to third countries addressing this issue as well.”

But the issue of who handles the migrants –for asylum or repatriation – is hugely sensitive, with Italy complaining its EU partners are not doing enough.

This is linked to the Dublin convention, an EU law which states that asylum seekers must apply for asylum in their country of arrival.

Some organisations, such as Amnesty International, are calling on European governments to “face their responsibilities” and set up a multi-country humanitarian operation.

“If we have to identify one problem with the rules, it’s the way the Dublin regulations are implemented,” said Pascouau. “If the Dublin regulations were implemented correctly, a series of criteria should be taken into account to decide which member state should take care of the asylum seekers. Among these criteria you have whether the person is an unaccompanied minor, whether they have family in the EU and whether they have been granted a visa by any other member state.”

But rights groups, such as Amnesty International, are calling European governments to “face their responsibilities” and set up a multi-country humanitarian operation.

While immigration may be a sensitive topic in Europe, “we need to explain to people in Europe that these refugees are not economic migrants," said Spindler. "They are coming here because they have no choice.

“Most refugees are not trying to come to Europe; most refugees are staying close to their countries of origin. In the case of Syrians, Lebanon, Turkey [ ...] we want the EU to help these countries so the refugees can stay where they are now and live in good conditions.”

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