Al Qaeda members may be among thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean by boat from Africa to Europe, posing a potential security risk for the European Union, Italy's Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said on Monday (18 November).
Italy is seeking more help from its EU partners to tackle a crisis that has seen thousands of African migrants arrive in Sicily this year and hundreds of deaths en route.
"We … have suspicions that among the immigrants there are jihadist elements and members of al Qaeda," Bonino told a news conference during an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels which discussed the issue.
She said that at the moment she would not talk about a terrorism threat, but rather "a security threat" posed by the jihadists.
Italy wants the EU to launch a mission against human trafficking and organised crime in the Mediterranean under the bloc's common security policy.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said foreign ministers had discussed the security implications for the 28-nation EU of illegal migration.
Italy has increased patrols in the seas between Libya, Tunisia and Italy since more than 360 mainly Eritrean migrants drowned in early October when their boat capsized off Lampedusa. A second boat sank a week later, leaving an estimated 200 people missing.
The island's reception centre has struggled to deal with a deluge of migrants fleeing civil war and unrest in Syria, Egypt and other Arab and African countries, which has swelled numbers making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean sea, often on rickety and ill-equipped boats.
More than 32,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East have arrived in Italy and Malta so far this year, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with many leaving from the lawless ports of Libya.
The EU is expected to take decisions in December on what to do to help southern European states deal with mass migration from Africa.
Bulgaria has concerns too
Bulgaria, who suffers a refugee wave from Syria, has also expressed concern that some of the refugees might be terrorists. The impoverished country is struggling hard to deal with some 7.000 refugees from Syria already on its soil and more arriving.
The country’s authorities have reportedly turned to Israel for help to make the difference.
Speaking on national television, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev said on 18 November that Israel, which he visited a few days before, country will help Bulgaria in securing the refugee situation, thanks to this country’s experience in this field.
Yovchev confirmed the information that there are jihadists in Syria, who aim to return to Europe – perhaps through Bulgaria. However, he assured that the government uses all its resources to keep the terrorists out of the country.
Since 1999, the EU has been working to create a Common European Asylum System and deal with immigration.
New EU rules have now been agreed, setting out common standards and co-operation to ensure that asylum-seekers are treated equally in an open and fair system – wherever they apply.
But EU countries rejected a European Commission proposal that solidarity should apply and that asylum seekers from the countries mostly affected from the arrival of migrants should be relocated in other EU members.
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