BRUSSELS/ROME (REUTERS) – European Union leaders agreed on Thursday to triple funding for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean where record numbers are drowning as they flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
The measure was announced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel after an emergency EU summit in Brussels, called after up to 900 went down on a single boat on Sunday off the coast of Libya, a major staging point for migrants heading for Europe.
European Council President Donald Tusk said the bloc was going to look into how to seek and destroy vessels that could be used by smugglers, step up efforts to stop people reaching Libya, streamline visa and asylum processing, and returning failed asylum seekers to where they came from.
“We want to move quickly. So we will triple the financial resources for the relevant missions of Frontex, clearly improve them,” Merkel said, referring to the EU’s border agency.
“For Germany I can add: if it turns out that the funds are not sufficient we will have to talk about it again. Money should be no object here,” she told a news conference.
Underlining global attention, the United Nations had criticised the European response so far and urged it to do more: “The European Union response needs to go beyond the present minimalist approach... which focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on its shores.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron, fighting an election against anti-immigration populists, earlier pledged his navy’s helicopter-carrying flagship and two other vessels to an operation he previously refused to support for fear of tempting more people out to sea.
But he stressed those picked up would not automatically be given refuge in Britain and would mostly be delivered to Italy, whose prime minister, Matteo Renzi, said he was optimistic that his European allies would no longer let Rome struggle alone.
Even as the leaders gathered, the Italian coast guard picked up 84 men, all apparently sub-Saharan Africans, from a sinking rubber boat 35 miles off Libya after receiving a distress call.
There were just 28 survivors from Sunday’s disaster, apparently the worst among migrants fleeing by sea to Europe from north Africa.
An interfaith funeral was held in Malta for 24 victims, the only ones whose bodies have been recovered so far from a ship in which many are believed to have been locked in below deck.
Imam Mohammed El Sadi said what had happened should raise awareness of the migrants’ plight while Bishop Mario Grech called for action motivated by love, rather than just the law.
EARLIER MISSION CLOSED
Italy shut down a mission that saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants last year because other EU countries refused to pay for it.
It was replaced with a smaller EU scheme whose main focus is to patrol the bloc’s borders, after countries argued that saving migrants encouraged more to come.
“Operation Triton”, with about seven ships off the Italian coast and a monthly budget of 2.9 million euros (S$4.2 million), should get more ships and money, like a similar operation, Poseidon, off Greece.
The Italian operation, Mare Nostrum, ended six months ago after critics, notably Britain and Germany, said it was drawing more would-be migrants by raising the chances of being rescued.
There is still disagreement about this “pull factor” – an issue also cited against Italian suggestions of setting up camps to process asylum claims in North Africa – but for the time being EU leaders see public embarrassment at the mass drownings outweighing popular hostility to immigration.
Italy now estimates as many as 200,000 people will cross to its shores this year, up from about 170,000 reported last year.
Amnesty International called the summit proposals “woefully inadequate and shameful”, saying they would not end a spiral that has seen nearly 2,000 people lost at sea this year and an estimated 36,000 cross the Mediterranean successfully.
EU officials and diplomats said differences among the states meant the legal mandate of Operation Triton would not be changed to make it explicitly intended to search for migrants and rescue them close to the Libyan coast.
However, commanders would have freedom to monitor where they wished to bar illegal entry to EU waters – and must under maritime law rescue anyone in trouble.
Adding to the complexity, the group which controls the part of Libya around Tripoli said it would “confront” any such EU military action against its coastline.