25th Oct 2016

EU after Lampedusa tragedy: More border surveillance

  • Discarded clothes on migrant boat: Lampedusa has seen a steady inflow of migrants from Africa (Photo: noborder network)

Up to 300 migrants are feared dead after a boat caught fire near Lampedusa and the Italian coast guard failed to spot it in time.

Italy is holding a day of mourning on Friday (4 October) after more than a hundred bodies were found in the sea and rescuers are still searching for over 200 migrants who are still missing.

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Around 150 people managed to survive the shipwreck and are being taken care of on the small Italian island, which in the past few years has become the main entry point for migrants looking for a better life in Europe.

According to the United Nations refugee agency, most of the migrants were from Eritrea and Somalia.

The survivors told rescuers that they set fire to a blanket to attract the attention of coast guards after the overcrowded boat started sinking. The fire spread making people panic start jumping in the water, even though many were unable to swim.

Raffaele Colapinto, a local fisherman who was among the first on the scene, told AFP: "We saw a sea of heads. We took as many as we could on board."

A 35-year old Tunisian, who was steering the boat, was arrested. "He had been deported from Italy in April," said Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano.

"This is not an Italian tragedy, this is a European tragedy," he said, calling for more help from fellow EU nations in coping with migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

The matter will be discussed at the next meeting of EU interior ministers, on Monday (7 October).

EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said this tragedy shows the need for Europe to "become better at identifying and rescuing vessels at risk."

"We also need to intensify our efforts to fight criminal networks exploiting human despair so that they cannot continue to put people's lives at risk in small, overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels," she said in a press release.

A new border surveillance system, Eurosur, will become operational in December this year and will help countries better coordinate and use "improved surveillance technology" to track and rescue small ships, she added.

"We expect all member states to support the adoption and implementation of Eurosur quickly and to use it at national level as soon as possible," Malmstrom said.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, over 25,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean in the last 20 years trying to reach Europe. Of these, almost 4,000 died only in the past two years, mostly off the coast of Lampedusa.

Francois Crepeau, a UN rapporteur on the rights of migrants, told AFP that the "criminalisation of irregular immigration" had played a role in the Lampedusa tragedy.

"Treating irregular migrants only by repressive measures would create these tragedies," Crepeau said.

He warned that by closing their borders, EU countries will only give even more power to traffickers. Instead, Europe should increase the opportunities for legal immigration, he said.

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