BRUSSELS – The deaths of scores of African asylum seekers off the Italian island of Lampedusa underlines Europe’s failure to cope with the flood of would-be immigrants knocking at its doors.
Scenes of capsized boats and desperately hungry faces have become commonplace in Southern Europe, with 25,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in the last 20 years, according to the International Organization for Migration. Of these, 2,000 died in 2011 and 1,700 last year.
Europe currently is bracing for a possible exodus of startling dimension from the war in Syria, where 2 million people have fled across the borders and millions are internally displaced.
As was the case during the fighting in Libya in 2011 and during the Arab Spring protests that unraveled across North Africa, the pressure is on Europe’s sea-washed southern nations: Italy, Malta and Spain, but also economically battered Greece and Cyprus.
Italy on Thursday called for more assistance from the European Union to deal with the sharp increase in refugee numbers, with Interior Minister Angelino Alfano calling the drama “a European tragedy.”
Under EU rules, it is up to the nation that serves as a refugee’s first port of call to consider the request for asylum and to house them in the meantime.
The system, under consistent attack from EU Mediterranean states for a lack of financial and political solidarity from northern, richer, fellow members, has remained unchanged since its inception in 2003.
There is no mechanism to date to enable an automatic sharing of refugees within the 28-member EU, and calls for a review are systematically knocked down by less affected countries. Meanwhile, asylum conditions differ from one state to the next regarding housing, health or welfare, with the Jesuit Refugee Service denouncing the “inhumanity” of Europe’s asylum system in June.
To prevent tragedies such as the one off Lampedusa, the European Commission, EU executive, has devised an external border surveillance system known as EUROSUR to pool information on boats believed carrying illegal migrants, fight trafficking networks and also to help save refugees in distress. Due to become operational in early December, it has been budgeted at €244 million ($332 million) between 2014 and 2020 and is to go to the European Parliament for approval next week.
But some EU lawmakers say the system lacks muscle, such as providing for more sea patrols in dangerous waters.
“Italy is not prepared for the surge of migrants on its coasts,” said European Greens co-leader Monica Frassoni. “The EU as a whole has a responsibility to develop a more humane and robust system.”
The European Commission urged member states Thursday to kick-start EUROSUR as soon as possible and said the bloc needs to press ahead with efforts to open new channels for legal migration.
In June, for instance, the EU signed a “mobility partnership” with Morocco to negotiate a deal facilitating the delivery of visas for students, researchers and business executives. Its flip side is to also agree to jointly fight trafficking.
The commission hopes to sign similar agreements with other countries across the Mediterranean, such as Tunisia. “We need sound policies on asylum and migration flows,” said commission spokesman Michele Cercone.
In New York, a U.N. official said the “criminalization of irregular immigration” had played a role in the Lampedusa tragedy. “Treating irregular migrants only by repressive measures would create these tragedies,” said Francois Crepeau, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.
He warned that by closing their borders, European countries would only give more power to human traffickers. Instead, he urged the EU to reinforce opportunities for legal immigration.
At talks next week between EU home affairs ministers, the commission is likely also to stress the need to re-settle the most vulnerable refugees, notably in line with pleas from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
EU states last year agreed to 102,700 requests for asylum, against 84,300 in 2011. Some two-thirds were registered in four countries: 22,000 in Germany, followed by 15,300 in Sweden, 14,600 in Britain and 14,300 in France.
While there are only 52,000 Syrians registered across Europe right now, the trickle is beginning to grow. Italy is among the most affected, with some 3,000 refugees arriving in August alone, according to U.N. refugee agency data. The total number of Syrians seeking refuge in Italy has risen to 4,600 so far this year, up from just 369 in 2012, the UNHCR said.
Bulgaria, meanwhile, has asked the EU for help, with its facilities overwhelmed by the arrival of some 4,000 asylum seekers so far this year, nearly half of them Syrian. Bulgaria, which shares a border with Turkey, which is not an EU member, fears that up to 10,000 more refugees, mostly from Syria, could arrive in the coming months.