Europe struggles to cope with flood of refugees

By Claire Rosemberg

Bodies of some of the drowned African migrants were lined up in the port of Lampedusa yesterday. Photo / AP
Bodies of some of the drowned African migrants were lined up in the port of Lampedusa yesterday. Photo / AP

The deaths of scores of African asylum seekers off the Italian island of Lampedusa underline Europe's failure to cope with the flood of would-be immigrants knocking at its doors.

Scenes of capsized boats and hungry faces have become commonplace in southern Europe, with 25,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean in the past 20 years, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Of these, 2000 died in 2011 and 1700 last year.

And Europe is now bracing for an exodus of mind-numbing dimensions from the war in Syria, where two million people have fled across the borders and millions are internally displaced.

As was the case during the fighting in Libya in 2011, and during the Arab Spring protests, the pressure is on Europe's Mediterranean nations - on Italy, Malta, Spain and economically battered Greece and Cyprus.

Italy yesterday called for more help from the European Union to deal with the sharp increase in refugee numbers, with Interior Minister Angelino Alfano calling the drama "a European tragedy".

Under EU rules, it is up to the nation that is a refugee's first port of call to consider any request for asylum and to house them in the meantime.

Under consistent attack from the EU's Mediterranean members for its lack of financial and political solidarity from Europe's north, the system has remained unchanged since its inception in 2003.

There is no mechanism enabling an automatic share-out of refugees within the 28-member bloc and calls for a review are always knocked back by less affected countries.

Meanwhile, asylum conditions differ from state to state regarding housing, health or welfare, with the Jesuit Refugee Service denouncing the "inhumanity" of the system in June.

To prevent tragedies such as Lampedusa, the European Commission has devised a European external border surveillance system known as Eurosur to pool information on boats believed to be carrying illegal migrants, fight trafficking networks and save refugees in distress.

Due to become operational in early December, it has been budgeted at 244 million ($398 million) between 2014 and 2020 and is to go to the European Parliament for approval next week. But some EU politicians say the system lacks muscle such as providing for more sea patrols in dangerous waters.

The European Commission urged member states yesterday to kick-start Eurosur as soon as possible while saying the bloc needed to press ahead with efforts to open new channels for legal migration.

In New York, a UN official said the "criminalisation of irregular immigration" had played a role in the Lampedusa tragedy.

"Treating irregular migrants only by repressive measures would create these tragedies," said Francois Crepeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

He warned that by closing their borders, European countries would only give more power to human traffickers.

Instead, he urged the bloc to reinforce opportunities for legal immigration. EU states last year agreed to 102,700 requests for asylum, against 84,300 in 2011.

About two-thirds were registered in four countries - Germany (22,000), Sweden (15,300), Britain (14,600) and France (14,300).

While there are only about 52,000 Syrians registered across Europe for now, this is beginning to grow.

Italy is among the most affected, with some 3000 refugees arriving in August alone, according to UN data. The UNHCR says the total number of Syrians seeking refuge there has risen to 4600 so far this year, up from just 369 in 2012.


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