Saturday

19th Jan 2019

Magazine

Saving migrants with cameras

  • The European Border Surveillance system, Eurosur, went live in December (Photo: Frontex)

For a brief while in October it seemed the EU might be shocked into doing something about the recurring immigration horror on its southern coastline.

Over 350 people drowned when a boat from Africa capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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  • European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom pay respects to refugees who drowned near the Italian island of Lampedusa (Photo: Flickr - Palazzochigi)

It was the largest incident of its type in a sea which has been called a "graveyard" for the number of lives it claims of people trying to reach Greece, Malta or Italy.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, visibly moved, granted the dead Italian citizenship and paid for funerals.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom also came to pay respects.

Barroso said the tragedy shows it is "indispensable" for the EU to step up its efforts on migration and pledged €30 million to help Italy resettle those who come.

He was heckled by crowds on the tiny Island.

Throwing money at the problem is easier than trying to persuade EU countries to make migration reforms.

Under EU rules, the country where a migrant first enters the Union has to process their asylum application, putting a disproportionate burden on southern countries.

Italy, Malta and Greece have been calling for solidarity from northern states for years.

But despite the Lampedusa tragedy, it did not take long to return to business as usual.

At an EU summit on migration two weeks later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel thumbed her nose at calls for change. "I'd like to remind you the we have quite a large number of asylum seekers that we have accepted [in Germany]," she told press.

The summit agreed to examine EU rules next June instead.

In truth, there is no quick fix to the fundamental problem. People will stop fleeing to Europe only when there is no more conflict or poverty in their home countries.

In the meantime, some EU countries are, quite literally, creating a fortress Europe. Bulgaria wants to build a 30km wall along the Turkish border. Greece already has a wall.

EU institutions have also made "border security" a big priority.

The EU foreign service is training militias in Libya to stop people getting into the boats in the first place.

The European Commission wants to put more patrol boats, planes, high-tech surveillance equipment and, in future, drones, into the Mediterranean zone to intercept them before they arrive.

Malmstrom's border control agency, Frontex, has a new mandate to do search and rescue operations in an area "covering the whole Mediterranean, from Cyprus to Spain."

In December, 18 EU countries also activated Eurosur, the European Border Surveillance System.

Eurosur co-ordinates border surveillance information from participating states. Each one sends near-live data feeds to Frontex, which raises the alarm if it gets a warning about smugglers or irregular migrants.

Each one sends near-live data feeds to Frontex, which issues alerts if they spot any trouble when it comes to drug smuggling, human trafficking and migrants.

The EU says that Eurosur will help save lives. But critics say it is just another, "virtual," wall.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2013 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

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