Luxembourg: The EU’s executive Tuesday pushed for extra resources to launch Mediterranean-wide search and rescue patrols after the Lampedusa tragedy as Europe struggles to cope with the flood of refugees knocking on its doors.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem went into talks with the bloc’s home affairs ministers saying she would propose “a big Frontex operation right across the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain for a big search and rescue operation”.
Frontex is the European Union agency in charge of policing the 28-nation bloc’s borders against illegal migration.
“I’m going to ask for the backing and the resources needed to do this, to save more lives,” Malmstroem said.
The shipwreck last week off the Italian island of Lampedusa, in which more than 300 African asylum-seekers are feared dead, has put the divisive question of migration back on the front page of the EU’s political agenda.
Earlier Tuesday, 400 people claiming to be Syrian and Palestinian refugees were saved off the Italian coast by a Danish and a Panamanian vessel when their boats ran into trouble.
Malmstroem, who will visit the site of the Lampedusa disaster Wednesday with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, will ask the ministers to beef up cash contributions to Frontex and loan it ships and aircraft.
Set up in 2004 to coordinate and improve border management and stage joint operations, Warsaw-based Frontex has seen its budget fall over the past three years.
Italy complains that Europe’s battered southern economies — including Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Spain — are left to cope with the refugees washing up on their shores or slipping across the porous border with Turkey.
Rome, which says 30,000 migrants have arrived so far this year, or four times more than usual, wants wealthier northern Europe to share the burden and for migration to be put on the agenda of a summit in Brussels at the end of the month.
Malmstroem agreed on the need for more burden-sharing, saying there were six to seven nations taking all the responsibility “and we are 28 member states”.
But ministers from Denmark, Germany and Sweden firmly denied that their governments were turning their backs on people seeking asylum from political torment or economic misery.
Germany was Europe’s most generous nation towards asylum-seekers, said Home Affairs Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich. It took in nearly 950 refugees per million inhabitants compared to Italy’s almost 260 refugees per million inhabitants.
Last year, 70 percent of the 330,000 asylum-seekers in Europe were registered in five EU nations — Germany with 77,500, France 60,600, Sweden 44,000, Britain 28,000 and Belgium also with 28,000.
57 more bodies
Italian divers pulled 57 more bodies out of the sea, taking the total number to around 289, said coastguards spokesman Filippo Marini.
Only 155 people survived the disaster and the final death toll is expected to be between 300 and 390.
Italian judicial authorities meanwhile issued an arrest warrant against Tunisian Kaled Bensalam, the captain of the sunken ship, who is facing charges of trafficking, manslaughter and aiding illegal migration.
Survivor Mussiie Ghebberhiert, who was questioned by prosecutors, said the boat was carrying 545 people when it went down, including around 20 children, some just a few months old.
“Most of us are Eritrean, at most 10 were Ethiopian,” said Ghebberhiert, adding that the only two “light-skinned” people on board were the captain and his assistant, who is among the missing.
Investigators spoke to six survivors on Tuesday, and all said they had paid between $1,000 (735 euros) and $2,000 to make the perilous journey.
On Wednesday, the Vatican will hold a mass for the Lampedusa victims, attended by the bishops of Eritrea and Ethiopia since many of the victims were Eritrean Catholics.
Frontex is reported to have saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean over the last two years. Due to crisis-era belt-tightening its budget has slipped from 118 million euros in 2011 to 90 million in 2012 and 85 million this year.