Plans for the Med
Boats crowded with migrants, barely seaworthy or even capsized, adrift on the Mediterranean - since the tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 3, such images have been burned into the public consciousness.
Afterwards, EU member states announced plans for more solidarity with Mediterranean countries. Accidents like these are not worthy of Europe, said EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström on Wednesday (04.12.2013) in Brussels, where she presented the EU's promised master plan to the assembled press.
Since the beginning of October, a European Commission task force has been putting together a series of measures to avoid disasters like Lampedusa in the future.
"After Lampedusa, there were very strong words in the European Union. Still, it happened, and it is likely to happen again," said Malmström. "Now is the time for the member states, for all of us, to show that we have done our utmost to minimize the risks of it happening again."
Measures have already been implemented to improve the situation in the European countries facing "high migratory pressure," such as Italy. The task force has dedicated 50 million euros ($68 million) to improve the quality and capacity of their asylum systems. But Malmström stressed it was vital that EU member states move to allow a more uniform distribution of incoming refugees throughout the 28-member bloc.
Malmström called on all member states to take in resettled refugees directly from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) outside Syria.
"This is the single most efficient short-term measure that member states can do to help prevent these very vulnerable people from taking the dangerous route over the Mediterranean," she said.
Malmström said she was disappointed that only 11 of the 28 EU member states have signed on to the UNHCR resettlement program. Last year, only 4,500 people were resettled through the UNHCR program in the EU. In comparison, the United States last year took in 50,000 people.
EU wants control over refugee routes
But above all, the task force also called for closer cooperation with third countries to help prevent future tragedies. Malmström is set to put forth a partnership deal with Tunisia on Thursday. Deals like this aim to fight traffickers operating in transit countries and open the path to legal immigration to Europe.
"The cooperation with third countries is about recording where refugees are moving and what their routes are," Barbara Lochbihler, a member of European Parliament from the Green party, told DW. "That will improve monitoring of these routes.
"I am very alarmed that we are already seeing Frontex sent back to third countries without any consideration of the human rights situation in these third countries," Lochbihler added, referring to the European Union's exterior border management agency.
Frontex: a friend to refugees?
Experts have called for an expansion of Frontex's presence in the Mediterranean as a means of protecting refugees.
"Frontex has an extra budget allocation of 7 million euros in order to further increase cooperation in the Mediterranean," Malmström said. "The aim is to have better coordination from Cyprus to Spain in order to save lives."
The Eurosur program, which started December 2, will also help make the Mediterranean safer for refugees by catching drug smugglers and people traffickers as well as detecting small vessels of refugees.
But Eurosur isn't just guarding Europe's borders from criminals, according to Lochbihler.
"It's also for finding and fighting people on the high seas," she said, adding that sealing off the EU's borders would have serious consequences for refugees. "Criminal organizations will look for even more dangerous routes that will put at risk the lives of the people who are on the run."
In recent years, Frontex has rescued over 40,000 people; however, Lochbihler added that she had not received an answer from the organization concerning where these people ended up.
After witnessing several thousand deaths in the Mediterranean, the task force needs to present ways of protecting refugees that go beyond fighting illegal immigration, Lochbihler said. She added that the EU needs to promote legal ways for refugees to enter Europe by using either humanitarian visas or regulated immigration.
The 38 suggestions made by the EU task force will be discussed at a meeting of European Union justice and interior ministers at the end of the week.