New EU migrant operation after Lampedusa disaster

'Too early' to say when it will start says Malmstroem

08 October, 19:40

    (By Denis Greenan).

    (ANSAmed)- Rome, October 8 - European Union home affairs ministers met Tuesday to discuss a big new push on migrant-rescue operations in the Mediterranean after last week's disaster that claimed more than 360 lives off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.

    Going into the meeting, European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said she would "strongly urge" that the EU adopt a huge rescue-assistance operation for Mediterranean countries trying to cope with migrants arriving from North Africa.

    Malmstroem's proposal regarded "a big Frontex operation for safe rescues from Cyprus to Spain".

    Frontex is the EU border-control agency.

    After the meeting, Malmstroem said Italy and the European Commission will set up a task force to help prevent migrant disasters.

    "Today's result is a task force between Italy and the Commission," she told reporters.

    Malmstroem said it was "too early" to say when the major new EU operation to stop such disasters would start.

    "All the member States said that Frontex can be used in different ways and can do more," she said.

    "But it is too early to say when the operation will start.

    "We have to talk to Frontex, hear what they need and then we will come back to speak with the member States".

    Italy said it wanted the EU to adopt an "effective" action plan to help Mediterranean members cope with migrants after last week's disaster, the worst in decades.

    Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said going into the meeting: "A European action plan is needed". "The EU has to be more involved in saving human lives. We are in the middle of the Mediterranean, we have saved thousands and thousands of people. "Now we are asking for the EU to give us a hand with the reinforcement of the border controls". Between 1 January and 30 September this year, 30,100 migrants reached Italy on boats from North Africa, the UN's refugee agency UNHCR says. The biggest groups were from Syria (7,500), Eritrea (7,500) and Somalia (3,000).

    Since 1988, it says, 19,142 migrants are known to have died attempting the crossing from North Africa.

    Most of the 363 people feared dead in last week's migrant-boat disaster are thought to have come from Somalia and Eritrea. Alfano also called for Frontex's presence to be boosted and for Italy to get more help with handling the migrants after they land.

    Frontex helps Italy intercept migrant boats, but its two operations in the southern Mediterranean have limited resources - a total of four ships, two helicopters and two planes. "Frontex has to employ its aircraft and ships better in the central Mediterranean, therefore in front of Italy, and we are asking for a concrete European plan.

    "We also need a hand for the relocation of the migrants after they have been saved. We need economic assistance with this". The deputy premier tried not to be drawn into the debate about whether to reform Italy's allegedly strict migration laws, which were drafted by the centre-right political bloc he belongs to.

    These laws, among other things, make being an undocumented migrant a criminal offence, which is controversial even though many other developed nations have similar measures in place.

    "This issue is not part of today's meeting," Alfano said.

    "Let's not weaken the national front with internal controversies".

    Premier Enrico Letta will visit Lampedusa with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on Wednesday, along with Alfano, who rushed to Lampedusa after the disaster on Thursday, and Malmstroem.

    Exasperated migrants held at Lampedusa's reception centre protested at their conditions on Tuesday.

    Migrants threw mattresses outside and tried to block departing buses after cramped conditions were rendered more difficult by several days of rain.

    "We are tired of living this way, like animals," they said.

    Security forces present inside the centre kept the chaos from escalating further, though tension remained high.

    Meanwhile, the UNHCR's representative in Italy blasted deteriorating conditions at the centre, and called for immediate action, not just for the 155 survivors of last week's shipwreck, but for all the migrants kept there who fled wars and persecution in search of safety. "The extreme situation at the center has deteriorated, with entire families forced into the open for three days in the rain in a row, it is absolutely unacceptable," wrote Lauren Jolles, the UNHCR representative in Italy.

    Jolles made three demands - that renovation begin immediately to restore the centre to its original 850-person capacity, that migrants get transferred to other centres within 48 hours of arrival, and the network of migrant centres across Italy be strengthened.

    The 850-person migrant centre on Lampedusa has been reduced to a 250-person capacity since a 2011 fire destroyed part of the facility.

    Sicilian prosecutors said Tuesday that they had ordered the detention of a 35-year-old Tunisian man, Kaled Bensalam, suspected of being the commander of the migrant boat that sank about 800 metres off Lampedusa's shores. He faces possible charges of multiple homicide and involvement in human trafficking, among others. Six Eritrean survivors of the disaster said Bensalam was one of the human traffickers and most of them also said he was the commander of a two-person crew, which also may have included a Tunisian minor who did not make it back to safety. Bensalam may also have had a role in the lighting of a blanket in a bid to call for help, a gesture that reportedly led to the boat catching fire and it capsizing when the people aboard moved to the other side.

    Italy reached a deal Tuesday with the Libyan coast guard to enhance sea patrols in the hopes of halting the kinds of desperate migrant crossings that end tragically.

    The new arrangement will involve patrol boats donated by Italy to Libya for sea patrols, as well as enhanced training.

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