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Opinion: EU needs a new refugee policy

Yet another fishing boat, this time carrying up to 700 migrants, capsized off the coast of Libya this weekend. It's high time for the EU to act, writes DW's Johannes Beck.

What else needs to happen for the European Union to finally change its immigration and refugee policy? How many more people have to drown in the Mediterranean Sea for European politicians to budge? How many more funeral services are needed before Brussels finally takes action?

Debt-ridden Italy of all countries showed the EU how to act after a boat capsized off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013. Italian navy ships then started patrolling sea routes between North Africa and southern Europe as part of their "Mare Nostrum" operation. Even though Italy was able to save thousands of people from drowning, other European member states didn't want to help pay the 108 million euros ($117 million) needed annually to keep operations going.

Instead, Europe tasked its border control agency Frontex with saving refugees' lives. The "Triton" mission started operating last November - and was supposed to be a lot cheaper than Mare Nostrum. That's why it mainly focuses on saving people which are close to European coasts, but doesn't help in the case of tragedies like the one off the coast of North Africa, thus risking thousands of lives.

No more words of mourning

I don't want to hear any more words of mourning from European politicians after the most recent tragedy in the Mediterranean. Those who don't want to participate in search and rescue missions like Mare Nostrum because they have been deemed too expensive should at least be honest enough and openly say that lives of people from Eritrea, Ethiopia or Syria are not worth very much.

Just look at Europe's agricultural policy and you'll see the cynical dimension of all this talk about financing Mare Nostrum. The EU supports its farmers with 50 billion euros per year in subsidies. That means Europeans spend more per day on aid to farmers than what a mission of the scope of Mare Nostrum would cost per year.

Three demands

Ideas for a new refugee and immigration policy have been around for years.

First, as a short-term approach: Search and rescue operations need to be expanded to the entire Mediterranean Sea again and should be financed by all EU member states, of course. Italy can by no means be left in a lurch again like it was with Mare Nostrum.

Johannes Beck (photo: DW)

DW's Johannes Beck

Second, as medium-term approach: the European immigration policy needs to be reformed. In addition to the right of asylum due to political persecution and protection of refugees from war zones such as Syria, migrants should also be allowed to come to Europe for economic reasons.

Europe is de facto already an immigration continent. Many countries have to deal with an aging population and will continue to need immigrants in the future. Quotas and point systems could help in making this process legal and transparent. This would help curb those leaving in search of work from running to the boats of human traffickers in the Mediterranean.

Third, in the long run: The EU has to spotlight the reasons why people are fleeing and leaving their countries. Those who destroy all governmental structures in Libya by launching a military operation can't withdraw from the country and simply watch how it descends into chaos.

The EU has to vigorously insist on observing human rights, for instance in Eritrea which is home to many boat refugees in the Mediterranean where the EU and its member states - Germany as well - have turned a blind eye for a long time and initially even helped support the dictatorial regime with development aid.

We've had enough time to talk and lament. It's high time to act.

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