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Europe’s Promised Action on Migration Crisis Is Criticized as Inadequate

Friday, 24 April 2015

BRUSSELS — Struggling to cope with a growing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, European leaders promised on Thursday to triple their spending on border protection and approved plans to intensify efforts to root out smugglers’ boats before they could set sail, among other measures.

But experts and advocacy groups said the plans announced by leaders meeting in Brussels were far too small in scale to stem the flow of illegal migrants or prevent disasters like the capsizing of a ship carrying mostly African migrants off the coast of Libya last weekend, which killed as many as 900 people. Funerals for 24 of the victims were held Thursday in Malta, but few of the migrants’ bodies have been recovered.

Migrants from Africa and the Middle East, buffeted by war and abetted by ruthless smugglers, have been crossing the Mediterranean in increasing numbers in unseaworthy boats. Many never make it.

Leaders’ efforts to formulate a response are hindered by intense budget pressures, a patchwork of migration policies across the 28-member European Union and a simmering backlash against immigrants across the Continent.

Members of the Italian Coast Guard rescued dozens of migrants crowded onto an inflatable dinghy on Wednesday off the coast of Libya. Credit Alessandro Di Meo/ANSA, via Associated Press

Officials said Thursday that the European Union planned to triple the budget of its Triton border protection operation, now at about 3 million euros, or $3.22 million, a month. The force now includes two aircraft, two helicopters, six coastal patrol boats and about 65 officers, bloc officials said.

But experts and nongovernmental organizations said the problem’s scale and root causes had not been addressed. Amnesty International noted that the Triton operation patrols only within 30 miles of the Italian and Maltese coasts, far from where many of the deaths at sea occur. Others contended that extending the search-and-rescue program could encourage even more desperate migrants to try to reach Europe.

“The E.U. hasn’t had a coherent immigration policy since forever, and the situation is getting worse since the Arab Spring,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform in London.

The European Union’s cautious approach was illustrated by a proposal for a resettlement program that would include 5,000 places for migrants who qualify for “protection.” But with thousands arriving recently in a single week, human rights groups said that such a proposal was woefully inadequate.

 In 2013, 107,000 people were detected trying to enter the European Union, up from 75,000 in 2012, according to Frontex, the union’s border agency. About 1,727 migrants have died in the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Before the meeting in Brussels, United Nations agencies and the migration organization issued a joint plea for moral and political leadership in responding to “a tragedy of epic proportions,” and criticized the bloc’s approach as being “minimalist.” Amnesty International, reacting to draft summit conclusions, called the proposals a pitifully “inadequate and shameful response.”

As Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany arrived at the summit meeting on Thursday, she said, “First and foremost now, we have to save lives and take the right measures to do so.”

While expressions of solidarity and good intentions were on wide display in Brussels, European Union leaders nevertheless remained circumscribed in their ability to act, with lingering unemployment in some countries fanning resentment of immigrants. They also face pressures from far-right parties — including the National Front in France, Jobbik in Hungary and the U.K. Independence Party in Britain — which have gained in popularity by railing against immigration.

Political pressures aside, the union’s plan would do little to address one of the central problems: the lawlessness in much of Libya, which has become the primary staging point for vessels carrying people toward Europe.

And some critics said the bloc’s proposals would leave the authorities along Europe’s southern tier with inadequate powers and equipment to stop migrant vessels early in their voyages and traffickers based along the north coast of Africa.

Efforts to forge a common immigration policy across Europe have been held back by divergent national approaches conditioned by geography, culture and history. The debate over how to proceed has in some ways also broken down along regional lines, with southern nations, led by Italy and including Greece and Spain, demanding more money and more action from the richer and more powerful nations, led by Germany.

The scale of last weekend’s tragedy has dented some countries’ reticence. Britain, which had been stymied by a toxic debate on immigration ahead of a general election next month, said Thursday that it was offering a Royal Navy warship, three helicopters and two border control vessels to help with search-and-rescue missions. But the British government underlined that it would not be taking in additional refugees.

Germany, which had more than 200,000 asylum seekers last year — almost a third of the claims made in the European Union — wants the burden of housing and aiding asylum seekers to be more evenly distributed across the bloc.

Some Central and Eastern European nations, which saw little immigration in Communist times, have been slow to adapt to the demands of European integration.

 Ms. Mortera-Martinez of the Center for European Reform said that a robust overhaul of immigration policy was needed, including an update of regulations that require migrants to apply for asylum in the countries in which they arrive. That, she noted, has imposed an unfair burden on the southern countries on the front lines of the migration flow.

Beyond the challenge of forging a united policy, the European Union’s creaking institutions are ill suited to rapid response, experts said, given that changes to immigration policy can take years. Thomas Huddleston, program director at the Migration Policy Group in Brussels, said European governments consider immigration policy a matter of national sovereignty, “and now suddenly the E.U. has to act at light speed.”

The human cost of the region’s migration crisis was underlined Thursday when prosecutors in Catania, Sicily, revealed more details about the boat whose capsizing last weekend killed hundreds.

Before the boat left Libya, the smugglers kept as many as 1,200 migrants on a farm near Tripoli, prosecutors said. Survivors described having been beaten and abused. Armed men in uniforms guarded the farm, prosecutors said, and one person reported seeing exchanges of money to men who appeared to be police officers.

On the day of the departure, the smugglers transferred the migrants to a beach and used rubber inflatable boats to transfer them to the larger vessel. At one point, according to a survivor, the smugglers continued to brutalize some of the passengers: In one instance, a boy stood, apparently without permission, and the smugglers killed him and tossed his body overboard.

Source: The New York Times

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