Italy and Malta demand aid to avert more deaths as figures show acceleration in those risking all in death-trap vessels from Libya
The EU came under mounting pressure at the weekend to relieve a worsening refugee emergency in the Mediterranean, as leaders of southern member states called for urgent action to prevent the sea becoming a “tomb” for thousands fleeing north from Libya to Malta or Italy.
With dozens more dying in the waters separating the two continents at the weekend, and latest UN figures showing an acceleration in the numbers risking all in death-trap vessels leaving the Libyan coast, the Italian and Maltese prime ministers insisted that the EU tackle the boat people issue at its summit next week.
The Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta, said Italy could not even wait that long, and would on Monday triple its naval and air presence in the Strait of Sicily, the stretch of water in which at least 390 people have died in the last 10 days.
“We will spend a lot of money,” Letta said of Italy’s planned “military-humanitarian mission”. “We will work so that Europe tackles it but on the other hand we will immediately do our bit,” he said.
Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, said the EU had to act or it would face the same macabre spectacle on its southern rim again and again. “If nothing changes we will be reporting more deaths next year and there will be consternation for a couple of days, a couple of headlines, but then we will return to life as usual,” he said.
Muscat said southern states need more help from across the EU in patrolling the Mediterranean.
“We’re not really what you might call a military superpower. But we find ourselves patrolling the European frontiers. We want to give a more humane dimension to all this, but we need resources. It’s not an issue of throwing money at the problem. It’s an issue of having a more European approach.
“I would like to hope that these tragedies that took place over the past week or so have opened up new avenues of political will.”
According to UNHCR figures, 2013 represents one of the largest movements of migrants across the Mediterranean, with the numbers accelerating fast. More than 4,600 left Libya in September, compared to 755 in the same month last year. Of the 32,000 who have landed in Italy this year so far, 7,500 are Syrian and a further 7,500 Eritrean.
“The numbers are unprecedented,” said Emmanuel Gignac, chief of the UNHCR mission in Libya. “Why it is happening is a good question. Lack of border controls, lack of capacity, and war.”
As the numbers rise, so the body count has risen too: 34 bodies retrieved from the latest stricken vessel that sank south of Sicily on Friday; 12 dead in a shipwreck off the Egyptian coast; and a further 19 bodies found in a boat that sank just off Lampedusa 10 days ago, bring the toll from that particular disaster to 358.
Italian naval spokesman, Commander Marco Maccaroni, said his units also rescued 180 people from other boats at the weekend in a further indication of the relentless numbers of migrants braving the Mediterranean. “The flows have never stopped, especially over the summer months,” Maccaroni said. “The two accidents in such a short period have raised the attention of the public but the tensions have been going on all summer.”
EU leaders will confront the issue at the summit on 24 October. French president François Hollande has insisted that the issue be given top priority on the basis of “prevention, protection and solidarity”.
But a draft of the concluding statement from the summit, obtained by the Guardian, makes no mention of the crisis. There is little appetite among Europe’s national governments for any surrender to Brussels of authority over immigration policies. With far-right anti-immigration parties on the rise across large parts of Europe, governments are also little inclined to shift to more open or generous policies.
Northern EU countries are reluctant to commit much more resources, noting that their refugee burden is much higher than Italy’s, despite the tragedies occurring with increasing frequency in the Mediterranean. The number of asylum-seekers reaching Germany last year was more than four times the figure for Italy. Four northern EU states, including Britain, received more asylum-seekers than Italy last year.
Rome, arguing that this is a European and not an Italian problem, is clamouring for help. The Letta government conferred posthumous Italian citizenship on the drowned off Lampedusa. But the survivors of the tragedy are held in an island containment centre and face prosecution, meaning possible fines or deportation, for illegal entry. The German government maintains that the bulk of the boat people are “economic migrants” seeking to benefit from more generous European welfare and social security payments.
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