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EU ponders Lampedusa response

October 9, 2013

The EU has suggested more search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean to deal with incoming asylum seekers, as divers continue to pull bodies from a sunken trawler carrying around 500 people.

European home affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem holds a press conference on 'Tackling human trafficking', at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 31 May 2013. EPA/JULIEN WARNAND
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Lampedusa refugees

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström (pictured) said after talks with European interior ministers on Tuesday that she had called for more patrols in the Mediterranean Sea as a first step in coping with the influx of refugees and asylum seekers into southern Europe.

Malmström said she proposed "a big Frontex operation right across the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain for a big search and rescue operation." Frontex is the EU body charged with policing the bloc's borders against illegal migration.

"I've asked member states to give their political support and also make available the necessary resources," Malmström said, calling on countries that have expressed solidarity with the victims and the Italian authorities to "go from words to action."

The long-standing issue was thrust into the limelight last Thursday when a trawler sunk while carrying around 500 people to Lampedusa - an Italian island and a popular destination for migrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Divers pulled more bodies from the wreckage in an ongoing salvage operation on Tuesday, taking the confirmed death toll to 288. Rescuers saved 155 survivors in the early stages of the recovery efforts.

Italy somewhat satisfied

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has often asked for more help with the refugees arriving in Lampedusa, Sicily and other Mediterranean points of entry.

His interior minister, Angelino Alfano, described Malmström's proposal on Tuesday as "a good signal, a concrete and significant signal." Alfano also asked his counterparts to consider further measures, including financial aid and greater cooperation with North African countries.

Although Italy is a regular destination for asylum seekers, EU members Germany, France, Sweden, Britain and Belgium all took in more refugees in 2012 than Italy. However, the number of asylum seekers that entered Italy between January and September this year, just over 30,000, is already more than three times greater than figures for all of 2012. Conflict in the Horn of Africa and Syria, in particular, are cited to explain the spike.

As a result, the cash-strapped government in Rome has asked for more help housing the new arrivals. Conservative German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich in particular spoke out against this on Tuesday, saying Germany housed more than three times as many asylum seekers per million inhabitants than Italy.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Letta, Malmström and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso were set to visit Lampedusa, while divers would continue scouring the sunken ship.

"Travelling to Italy with Minister Alfano and @BarrosoEU," Malmstöm wrote on Twitter after Tuesday's meeting in Luxembourg. "Tomorrow Lampedusa. A European strategic approach needed to avoid more tragedies."

Authorities in Lampedusa on Tuesday also arrested a 35-year-old Tunisian man suspected of being the ship's captain. The man could face charges of aiding illegal immigration or counts of homicide or manslaughter.

Officials have said most of the passengers paid between $1,600 (1,180 euros) and $2,000 for their places on the doomed vessel, estimating that the trip earned human traffickers up to $1 million.

msh/ccp (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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