22nd Oct 2016

Frattini: deaths of migrants at sea are 'European failure'

The European Commission's Franco Frattini has shown deep frustration over how EU capitals are failing on promises to give boats and helicopters to tackle illegal migration in the Mediterranean, calling African deaths at sea a "European failure."

"I need genuine cooperation," the home affairs commissioner said on Wednesday (6 June), adding it is "a matter of urgency" to translate recent political commitment, given in writing, into action.

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  • Malta sparked controversy over its refusal to allow a Spanish boat with rescued Africans to dock (Photo: European Commission)

Within two weeks, the bloc's external border agency Frontex is set to kick off a new series of patrols in the Mediterranean coastal area – known as operation Nautilus – in order to halt the influx of illegal immigrants, crossing over from North Africa to Europe. However, the agency has only 20 boats and four helicopters at its disposal.

"Where are the others?" Mr Frattini asked, telling EU interior ministers that "what has been promised, must also be delivered."

Frontex had been promised 115 boats, 25 helicopters and 23 planes as well as a variety of other technical equipment by no later than April - when EU southern and south-eastern borders (Canary Islands, Lampedusa, Malta) begin to face increasing pressure due to favourable weather conditions.

On top of that, only four countries – Malta, Greece, France and Germany – have pledged to take part in operation Nautilus, expected to last the entire peak of the illegal immigrant season.

"This summer will be as dramatic as the summer of 2006…full of many attempts by desperate people to get to Europe," Mr Frattini said in his appeal to EU interior ministers, who will meet next Tuesday (12 June).

The Spanish Canary Islands alone saw over 30,000 immigrants arriving by sea last year - six times more than in 2005, while Italy and Malta were also heavily targeted. Almost all migrants were packed into small wooden boats. Thousands are believed to have been lost at sea.

Mounting pressure

But EU interior ministers are likely to hear the word "solidarity" more and more often, as Mr Frattini is also set to push for new clear rules on who should be responsible for search and rescue operations in international and non-EU waters.

The move comes in response to the series of scandals involving the EU island of Malta .

In late May, 27 Africans spent three days clinging to tuna nets about half way between Malta and Libya, while the two countries wrangled over who should take them in. The migrants were eventually rescued by an Italian vessel.

In another case, Malta refused to give authorization to a Spanish tugboat with 26 African men rescued near Libyan coast to dock, with the country's home affairs minister Tonio Borg saying "Malta cannot take in all the migrants who say they do not want to go back to Libya."

"The obligation to save lives at sea comes from international tradition that no country has ever violated in such a manifest way," EU commissioner Frattini was cited as saying following the case on Sunday (3 June), but today he backtracked from earlier tough-worded comments.

"If somebody dies at sea because we didn't manage to get there in time to save him, then it is a European failure," he said.

According to the commissioner, Malta will table a proposal to have a burden-sharing and solidarity system on patrolling search and rescue areas of international waters, as the current law of the sea stipulates that lives must be saved no matter what, but it does not say who should be responsible for illegal immigrants afterwards.

"Malta cannot be responsible alone. Burden-sharing means that Malta should participate, but also that other member states should participate," said Mr Frattini.

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