Time for change
When he arrived late to the press conference, it was clear that European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was shaken. Together with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, Barroso had visited an aircraft hangar on the island of Lampedusa where there were almost 300 coffins holding the remains of last week's shipwreck victims.
"That image of hundreds of coffins will never get out of my mind. It's something one cannot forget. Coffins with babies. Coffins with a mother and child. This has profoundly shocked me and deeply saddened me," said Barroso, after laying roses on one of the coffins as Letta knelt nearby.
Protests with angry demonstrators greeted the European delegation with cries of "murderer" or "shame." Visiting the overcrowded refugee camp, Barroso spoke with a few of the 155 survivors of the disaster. He met a 15-year-old boy from Eritrea, and said he saw a glimmer of hope in his eyes, a hope he did not want to disappoint.
"Seeing this with my own eyes is, of course, quite different than just seeing the television pictures or documents," Barroso told reporters.
More EU funds for Italy
The call by Italy's conservative Interior Minister Angelino Alfano for more European aid, and the poor conditions at the detention center on Lampedusa, appeared to have convinced Barroso to make a spontaneous decision.
"The European Commission is ready to provide Italy with 30 million euros [$40.5 million] of additional aid this year," he said. "We will work closely with the authorities here to improve the situation of refugees in Italy."
But Italy, like many other EU countries, has for many years already been receiving millions of euros in aid from several different sources - funds that were intended to both improve accommodation for refugees and strengthen the coast guard.
The EU commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, was also part of the delegation to Italy, and responded to critical questions from journalists concerning Italian and European refugee policies. She admitted that the refugee shelters in Italy were in many cases inadequate, and that acceptance of asylum applications are more like a lottery and could be regularized.
But, she added, all that is supposed to improve with a unified asylum procedure the EU adopted over the summer, which is now being gradually implemented into national law.
No quotas for refugee distribution
Letta said Italy intended to turn the issues of refugees, asylum and immigration into EU policy priorities in 2014. He added that the regularly scheduled summit of the EU heads of state and government, which will take place in two weeks, should address the issue.
"We are being overwhelmed by a new exodus from North Africa and the Arab world," said Letta. "This is not just due to emigration for economic reasons. We are now facing flight for humanitarian reasons and asylum issues." Letta said this is not just a challenge for the national government, which currently consists of a deeply fractious coalition, but also for Europe - which will have to find an answer.
Malmstrom clearly rejected demands by Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta that refugees reaching their shores be equally shared among all other EU countries. "There is absolutely no political consensus," she said. Five EU countries, among them Germany, take in up to 70 percent of the 320,000 refugees who seek asylum each year in the EU. Italy registers fewer asylum applications than Germany.
The fact is that most asylum seekers don't reach the EU by traveling across the Mediterranean but arrive on airplanes. According to the European border agency, Frontex, many arrive on a tourist visa and, after it expires, apply for asylum. This method is most used by asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia.
Legal immigration and asylum applications outside the EU
"We do need to open ways for more regular migration," said Malmstrom. She pointed out that "legal ways to come to the EU will reduce the number of people who put themselves in the hands of smugglers and traffickers."
Malmstrom called on EU member states to take in more refugees and resettle them safely in Europe. "We also need to discuss and identify other ways for refugees to be sheltered - humanitarian visas can be explored, as well as asking for asylum outside the EU territory," Malmstrom added.
Under European law, legal entry into the Schengen area for humanitarian reasons is already possible. But Malmstrom said this regulation is underused. She added that she was committed to negotiating with non-EU countries on the possibility of completing and processing asylum applications for Europe abroad. This would prevent asylum seekers from attempting the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean, or the arduous overland journey through Greece, Bulgaria or Hungary.
'We need action, not task forces'
While the European delegation was visiting Lampedusa, the refugee situation was also being debated by the European Parliament. Conservative German parliamentarian Manfred Weber called for a greater commitment from Europe and Germany.
"We need a clear statement from EU member states that they will accept refugee quotas from the UN Refugee Agency [UNHCR]. Distribution of refugees coming to Europe should be up to the UNHCR."
An outraged Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Socialists in the European Parliament, criticized EU interior ministers for failing to make progress at their meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday.
"Some countries do their job, some countries don't do their job. I was very disappointed by the home affairs council," Swoboda said. The ministers have said they will consider further steps in a working group.
"Another task force! We need action, not task forces. We know what we have to do," Swoboda said.