Barroso, EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano paid a visit yesterday (9 October) to Lampedusa, the small Italian island near the coast of which some 270 immigrants drowned in a shipwreck last week.
The officials visited a refugee centre, before being shown a hangar where some of the victims’ bodies were being kept.
“That image of hundreds of coffins will never get out of my mind. Coffins of babies, coffins with a mother and a child that was born just at that moment,” Barroso told reporters at a press conference on the island.
For some people living on the island, these were just empty just words.
“What are they coming here for? To see that everyone is dead? It’s completely wrong for them to come here!” said one man, interviewed by Euronews.
Lampedusa resident Salvatore Ragonetti said: “I don’t care whether Barroso comes here or not.”
The refugee centre on Lampedusa is supposed to hold 250 people but there are over 1,000 staying there at the moment, including 155 survivors of last week’s disaster in the Mediterranean.
Immigration and asylum will be on the agenda at the next EU council at the end of the month.
And today (10 October), the European Parliament will examine the proposal to set up a new European border management system within Eurosur, the European external border surveillance system.
Responding to the crisis, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström proposed on Tuesday “the deployment of a special force of research and rescue in the Mediterranean, managed by Frontex, between Cyprus and Spain”, all the while insisting that from December the EU should have the technology provided by Eurosur.
Eurosur, Frontex questioned
But the benefits of this new system are now put into question. According to the definition given by the European Commission in June, Eurosur should reinforce the security of migrants while preventing cross-border crime.
This new system aims to link up national boarder surveillance policies into a network. The same data exchange mechanism exists for Justice (Eurojust) and tax issues (Eurofisc) but the member states’ participation is sporadic, depending on the importance they attach to the subjects being discussed.
Eurosur should begin work on more solid ground as it already has an agency, Frontex. Based in Warsaw, Frontex has an annual budget of €85 million, down from €115 million in 2011.
As the ALDE liberal group in the European parliament Guy Verhofstadt pointed out, this budget is in fact smaller than the recent transfer of football player Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, which was of €85.3 million. With such funding, Frontex is given the capacity to produce reports, rather than to enforce the EU borders.
Frontex’ resources have been strengthened only in times of border management crisis, especially with the creation of special intervention forces, called "Rabit", or Rapid Border Intervention Teams. Rabit intervened notably in Greece during a high wave of immigration from the Turkish border. Their actions have been widely criticised in particular by Human Rights Watch in a report entitled “EU’s dirty hands”.
Eurosur will have practical implications for member states, with a national coordination center to be created in each country to make all border control administrations work together.
According to a report by the Center for European Policy Studies think-tank, data collection carried out jointly by Frontex and Eurosur should be used to define risk analysis, including identifying ethnic groups, a procedure that may prove discriminatory.
Eurosur received somewhat unexpected backing by a British Conservative MEP, Timothy Kirkhope, who said he "had always been in favour of Frontex. This agency is not only important for the security and the fight against traffickers of all kinds, but also in the management of life-threatening humanitarian problems”.
For human rights NGOs this is not a good approach. “Since the establishment of the Frontex agency, the number of deaths at the EU's borders continues to rise reaching 2,000 per year," said Olivier Clochard, a geography PhD at the University Center Migrinter.
According to figures from “United Against Racism”, the number of deaths at the borders of Europe since 1993 reached over 17,300 people.
The problem with this approach is that it is prone to abuses. In practice, the tendency is to stem immigration flows without observing the formal rules in order to reduce official asylum seekers figures. It’s called "pushback ".
In 2008, a fishing boat that had rescued migrants in Agrigento in Italy was seized and its fishermen imprisoned. Last summer, migrants who had been rescued by an oil tanker were sent back to Libya.
Today, questions are being raised about a boat of the Italian Guardia Civil which was sighted in Lampedusa when the boat people sank. Several units of Frontex were also there, equipped with radars. But "the boat that sank was not a small boat, it was a ship that was bound to appear on the radar," says Olivier Clochard, who calls for a political response and the respect of maritime law, which stipulates that all ships in distress have to be rescued.
Dublin II rules seen as unfair
Asylum claims have risen slightly since the beginning of the year, according to Eurostat, with Syrian migrants contributing to the swelling ranks. On the long term, however, asylum claims have tended to diminish. In 2000, 500,000 applications were filed in Europe. In 2012, there were around 400,000, according to Eurostat.
But human rights groups are questioning whether immigrants are at all being offered the possibility to file asylum claims. Only 700 asylum claims from Syria were filed in the first half of 2013.
To enter France, Syrians must now produce a visa, whereas previously they could obtain one at the airport. A Syrian arriving on French soil without a visa can be deported or detained, a measure that has led Syrians to turn to Germany or Sweden for asylum.
Furthermore, since the last changes were brought to the 2003 Dublin Regulation in June this year, refugees can only file asylum applications in the country of arrival. This new rule is seen as detrimental to Southern European countries such as Greece, Italy or Spain which have large maritime borders and often act as a gateway to Europe. Germany for instance is hardly confronted to the issue, which is unjust, said Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament.