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20th Apr 2019

Lampedusa: EU commission keen to upgrade border agency

  • Malmstrom in Luxembourg: 'I planted the idea today' (Photo: cosilium.europa.eu)

The European Commission is pushing EU countries to vastly increase the resources of Frontex, its Warsaw-based border control agency, in reaction to the Lampedusa deaths.

The commissioner in charge, Sweden's Cecilia Malmstrom, told press in Luxembourg it is too early to say how much more money or how many new boats, planes, helicopters or satellite images she will ask for.

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But she said EU home affairs ministers at a meeting on Tuesday (8 October) voiced support.

"I just planted the idea today," she said.

"All member states who expressed themselves said Frontex could do more … This is an occasion where the whole of Europe has expressed its solidarity," she added.

The idea, in Malmstrom's words, is to create a Frontex search and rescue operation that will cover the entire Mediterranean Sea, "from Spain to Cyprus."

The commission has been talking about expanding Frontex for at least three years.

Migrants have also been dying in attempts to cross the Mediterranean for years.

According to the UN, 500 people lost their lives or were reported missing in 2012 and 1,500 in 2011. Some 20,000 have been lost over the past two decades.

Malmstrom noted that so long as there are "dictators, natural disasters and poverty" they will keep coming.

She added that on top of Frontex surveillance, the EU joint police agency, Europol, needs to help dismantle human trafficking gangs in countries such as Libya and Tunisia and the EU needs to create "safer … legal ways" for refugees to enter the Union.

She said Europol will have a hard time in post-war Libya due to its "weak institutions."

She also defended Frontex' track record, saying it "saves lives every day with the means that it has" - a budget of €86 million a year, 315 staff, four boats, two helicopters and two planes.

Back on Lampedusa, she noted that ministers in Luxembourg did not discuss the fact survivors of the wreck are criminals under Italian law and liable to fines.

For his part, Italy's interior minister Angelino Alfano instead told press the Lampedusa incident should lead to more EU help for Italian authorities.

"We are in the middle of the Mediterranean and we have saved thousands and thousands of lives, we now ask for some help from Europe,” he said.

"The Mediterranean represents the Africa-Europe border, not the Africa-Italy border," he added.

But German interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich noted that despite Italy's sensitive location: "Germany is the country that takes in the most refugees in Europe."

According to EU statistics, Germany granted asylum to 22,165 people last year.

Likewise, France, Sweden and the UK each took in several thousand more people than Italy (9,275).

Meanwhile, a group of NGOs - FIDH, Migreurop, AEDH, EMHRN - have raised concerns that Malmstrom's focus on Frontex is "more of the same."

They said in a letter to EU ministers that the agency, led by a former Finnish soldier, should alter its mandate, which prioritises stopping "illegal migration," to say more on humanitarian assistance.

They also said EU countries must draft rules obliging their own navies and commercial mariners to rescue boats in distress.

Amid Alfano's remark on savings "thousands of lives," the Council of Europe in a Strasbourg in a report in 2011 accused Italy of letting more than 60 migrants die of exposure despite their repeated appeals for help to passing helicopters, airplanes, naval vessels and fishing boats.

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