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Solving the migrant crisis: EU leaders fail to agree

01 May 2015


Deadly escape route: Libyan refugees queue to leave an Italian coast-guard ship in Sicily last Friday

Deadly escape route: Libyan refugees queue to leave an Italian coast-guard ship in Sicily last Friday

AN AGREEMENT by the heads of government of the 28 EU member-states to step up search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean masked deep divisions over how to tackle the migrant crisis that has cost the lives of about 1300 people in the past month.

Britain is sending the Royal Navy's flagship HMS Bulwark, three helicopters, and two border-patrol ships as part of the EU Council's decision to triple the budget of Operation Triton - putting it on a par with its predecessor, Operation Mare Nostrum.

That operation was established in 2013, after the deaths of about 400 asylum-seekers off the Italian island of Lampedusa; but a year later it was cancelled, amid controversy, when some governments, Britain included, said that it was encouraging unsafe migration, and that people-smugglers were using it as cover for taking greater risks.

But the deaths this month of an estimated 1300 migrants in the Mediterranean, bringing the total toll this year to about 1750, has forced governments to think again.

As well as boosting Operation Triton, the EU leaders also agreed to aim at limiting "irregular migration flows" by working with countries of origin and transit; to support "front-line member states under pressure"; and to explore ways of capturing and destroying the vessels of people-smugglers before they can be used.

"Saving the lives of innocent people is the number-one priority," the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said after the meeting.

"But saving lives is not just about rescuing people at sea. It is also about stopping the smugglers, and addressing irregular migration. We are facing a difficult summer, and we need to be ready to act."

But the EU Council failed to reach agreement on proposals from the European Commission for an EU-wide migration policy, and a system of resettlement within Europe. Instead, it agreed to a "voluntary" programme of resettlement for those countries willing to take part.

Britain is not one of them. David Cameron told his counterparts that Britain's offer of HMS Bulwark was conditional on no rescued migrants making their way to Britain.

Speaking as he arrived in Brussels, he said: "Britain, as ever, will help. We will use our aid budget to stabilise neighbouring countries, and, as the country in Europe with the biggest defence budget, we can make a real contribution."

He emphasised, however, that this offer was made "under the right conditions, and that must include that people we pick up . . . are taken to the nearest safe country - most likely Italy - and don't have immediate recourse to claim asylum in the UK."

Before last Thursday's meeting began, Mr Tusk minimised hopes of any agreement on resettlement, saying that it would be "the most difficult, the most challenging" part of the meeting. . . It will be a discussion about readiness to sacrifice some national interests for the common economic good."

Afterwards, the EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, said that he was disappointed with the outcome. "I would have liked for us to be more ambitious. That was not possible." He said that the European Commission would continue to discuss its "agenda for migration" in May, as it attempts to come up with "a package that will enable . . . a more comprehensive approach".

The EU Council will discuss the issue again at its next scheduled meeting in June.

AS THE European Council was meeting last week, the President of the European Parliament, the German MEP Martin Schulz, predicted that the Parliament would produce a "very, very lively response" if the heads of government failed to properly address the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

In a debate in Strasbourg on Wednesday, he (and most of the Parliament) spoke in favour of a common European migration policy, and a system of quotas so that the "burden" of migration was shared across the EU's member states. Currently, two-thirds of all asylum applications in the EU are fielded by Germany, Sweden, Italy, and France.

Reporting the EU leaders' deliberations to the European Parliament, the President, Donald Tusk, said that "the best way to protect people from drowning is to ensure they don't get on the boats in the first place." Outlining the steps that the governments had agreed, he said that the biggest difficulty was the current state of Libya. "We have a neighbour on our border without law and order, and without a government that we can work with."

The European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, told MEPs that the "EU Council's response was immediate, but remains inadequate. . . because the conclusions adopted at the extraordinary Council were not as ambitious as they could have been. We should have indicated our collective will to share refugees geographically across the EU. This is not something that can wait."

He continued: "We have to leave the door slightly ajar. If we don't open the door to legal migration then the poor people of the world will be climbing in through our windows."

The London Conservative MEP Syed Kamall described how his parents came to Britain "for a better life", and said that "had they not taken that step, my life would have been very different.

"To those who say we should turn everyone away, and to those who say we should let everybody in - you are both wrong."

He argued that "the migration system should not be conflated with the asylum system", saying that doing so "undermines public trust in both. Part of the problem with this debate is that we are deliberately confusing legal migration, and helping those in need. We have to put an end to that confusion."

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