EU migrant rescue plan faces serious obtacles

BRUSSELS (AFP) - EU leaders meeting Thursday in an emergency summit will consider a range of options to halt the flood of migrants washing up on the bloc's southern shores, but they all come with reservations.

A 10-point action plan agreed Monday "will be complicated to put into effect", one EU diplomatic source says, echoing a common view.

The proposals are similar to those drawn up following the 2013 Lampedusa disaster after more than 300 migrants drowned off the Italian island.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said at the time: "Today we are putting on the table measures and proposals for a truly European response that can make a difference." Critics say little has been done since.

"The latest plan offers nothing new because the problems are still the same - how to act before, after and during the sea crossing," one European diplomat said.

Herewith the main points under discussion:

HALT DEPARTURES

The first task is to prevent migrant boats leaving Libya which has descended into chaos since a popular uprising ousted longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

But how do you work with a country without a government, especially when Italy is pressing for military action against the human traffickers.

On the agenda for the EU summit is a proposal to "undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers." The solution might be an operation similar to the EU's Atalanta mission to combat pirates off the Horn of Africa which was agreed to by the Somalia government and backed up with a UN resolution. Launched in 2008, Atalanta took several years to get going properly.

Identifying smugglers from legitimate fishing and other small vessels is going to be difficult but diplomatic sources said rescue ships could destroy the boats after they pick up migrants from them.

The right to do so however would be limited to those such as Italian or Maltese navy ships operating in their own territorial waters.

Other EU navies, for example providing ships for the Triton border control mission, would not have such authority.

SEARCH AND RESCUE

The summit will most likely find it easiest to agree on a doubling of the resources available to Frontex, the EU's border control operation which runs Triton.

Triton is limited to patrols within 30 nautical miles of the EU border, in stark contrast with Italy's Mare Nostrum mission which went to 90 miles, taking it much nearer the Libyan coast.

Italy halted Mare Nostrum late last year in protest at its EU partners' refusal to take up more of the burden of a problem which Rome says should be shared equally across the bloc.

The action plan contains a commitment to do just that but EU diplomatic sources said Triton's mandate would remain unchanged.

If Triton has more ships it would still be able to do much more than before, they said.

Triton remains a modest effort, however, with a current monthly budget of three million euros (S$4.34 million).

MIGRANT PROCESSING

This is among the most sensitive issues, with many EU leaders reluctant to get embroiled in yet another controversy over migration which nationalist and anti-EU groups have capitalised on at home to their political discomfort.

Last year, the UNHCR called on the EU to accept 130,000 Syrian refugees but the bloc only took in 36,000.

The action plan contains a proposal for the 28 member states to accept on a voluntary basis migrants who have gone through the asylum process, with 5,000 initialled in as a first figure.

The European Commission has also suggested member states could take in migrants on a temporary basis to help ease the burden in Italy, Greece and Malta, which have borne the brunt of the problem.

Under current EU rules, as laid out in what is known as the "Dublin II" accord, all asylum requests have to be dealt with in the country where the migrant lands, irrespective of their ultimate destination.

If asylum is refused, it is also responsible for sending the migrant back to their country of origin, a thankless and often very difficult task.

There is no appetite to change the Dublin II provisions, diplomatic sources said.

"Member states reject any modifications," one said.

When all is considered, the prospects for significant progress are limited, with the EU likely to do as much as possible to tackle the recent upsurge in migrant rivals without being able to address the underlying problems.

"Putting the plan into action is complicated from A to Z," said one diplomat.

"The issue has become very politicised because it goes to the heart of EU immigration policy and all the right-wing parties are waiting in the wings to pounce," he said.