European Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s trip to the Italian island of Lampedusa began with boos and shouts of "shame" and "murderers" from some of the residents, TV footage has shown. In the meantime, lawmakers prepared to re-examine the EU’s border surveillance systems. EurActiv France reports.
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.
French Interior Minister, Manuel Valls called for a review of any migration strategy of the EU with the countries of the southern shore, and intends to fully participate in the operation of safety and rescue in the Mediterranean proposed by Brussels. “The whole migration policy of the States of the EU and the countries of the southern shore of the Mediterranean should be reviewed", he said.
Eurosur system – to be voted today (10 October) - will help to prevent deadly immigration accidents but only a European immigration policy can be effective, the centre-right EPP group in the European Parliament stated.
“European citizens ask us what we do to strengthen security in Europe. Today we can answer them: Frontex and Eurosur! But we must go further! We must act with firmness against illegal immigration networks that exploit human misery, as the Lampedusa tragedy sadly reminds us. We must also strengthen Frontex, increasing its budget and its team of European border guards,” said Veronique Mathieu Houillon MEP, EPP Group Coordinator in the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the European Parliament.
"We urge the Commission and the Council to finally give substance to a common European policy on the protection of our external borders and on immigration. For this we need a common approach on asylum and a focus on Lampedusa and the Mediterranean, areas in a situation of permanent emergency. Furthermore we ask for values such as sharing responsibility at European level, European solidarity and common trust among Member States to be recognized, as well as for more resources and equipment,” said Salvatore Iacolino MEP.
“The Eurosur system will also increase internal security by preventing crimes such as human trafficking and drug trafficking. Furthermore, borders will be classified according to the level of impact from migratory flows. Starting from December 2013, the EU will activate a National Coordination Centre in each Member State where information will be shared among countries. In this proposal we have also tried to give the right weight to cooperation and collaboration with bordering countries such as those of North Africa, as a way to curb these structural and unfortunately often tragic mass exoduses," said Marco Scurria MEP, Rapporteur on Eurosur for the EPP Group.
Dutch ALDE MEP and Parliament Rapporteur, Jan Mulder, said Eurosur would be a new instrument that will help prevent further human tragedies:
"EUROSUR will complement Frontex, by improving its operational ability". Frontex is reported to have saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean over the past two years. "Every EU country will have to set up a national coordination centre, despite thier geographical location, given that Member States borders are also European ones".
"A special clause has been foreseen for Member States outside the Schengen area, specifically for the UK and Ireland, to join the EUROSUR system. We have also made it possible for existing European Agencies to participate and contribute in information gathering"
- Dec. 2013 : Eurosur enters into force