Francesco Montenegro, the archbishop of the Sicilian archdiocese of Agrigento and Lampedusa, visited Brussels last week to urge EU representatives to boost their actions on asylum and migration and to “put the human being first” in their policy initiatives.
The Lampedusa tragedy was a wake-up call for Europe, Montenegro said. The archbishop visited representatives of the EU Commission, Parliament and Council last week. He saw “a willingness to change things,” he told EurActiv.
On 3 October, over 300, mostly Eritrean, refugees died when the boat carrying them from North Africa capsized near the small Italian island. This was one of the largest immigration disasters in recent memory.
Since the incident, the EU has paid increasing attention to the politically sensitive issue of immigration.
“Still, I know the situation will stay the same for a long time,” the church representative said. “It is a slow process, but we should aim to change ideas first […] and try to speed up the process.”
Catholic NGOs are heavily involved in asylum reception in EU border countries like Italy and Malta. But, the archbishop said: “What we need is a political plan, undertaken by the whole of Europe, to receive these people. Politics shouldn’t just focus on economics. If we want to see a change in the world, we need to put the human being in the centre of attention.”
>>Read the interview: EU immigration policy should put the human beings first
On his visit to Brussels, the archbishop met with members of the European Parliament, Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.
Pressure for immigration reform
The issue of migration was on the agenda of the European Council summit on 24-25 October. It, however, got overshadowed by the scandal that US intelligence agencies had listened in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversations, which broke just days before the summit.
In a joint statement after the summit, EU leaders said that “determined action should be taken in order to prevent the loss of lives at sea and to avoid that such human tragedies happen again.”
The European heads of state and government also established a task force for migration assistance in the Mediterranean. The task force is set to report to EU leaders at the December summit, scheduled for 19-20 December, and will embark on a more comprehensive review of the EU’s asylum and migration rules next year.
Last month, Barroso visited the island of Lampedusa and announced an aid package of €30 million for Italy to cope with boat arrivals and accommodate asylum seekers reaching its shores.
New surveillance initiative
Immigration is a sensitive issue for European governments, which are generally very careful about integrating their policies because of heavy domestic pressures from opposition parties.
Europe’s borders are controlled by the agency Frontex, in which resources are pooled to patrol the Mediterranean as well as other EU borders, but Frontex’ funding was cut from €115 million in 2011 to €85 million earlier this year.
In October, the European Parliament adopted a proposal by the Commission on Eurosur, the EU’s border surveillance system set to enter into operation by the end of this year. Eurosur is aimed at rapid information exchange between member state authorities and Frontex, which would help to prevent shipwrecks like the one in Lampedusa.
A common European asylum system has been on the EU’s agenda since 1999, but progress is slow. One of the issues at stake in the review of the regulation framework is the Dublin II regulation, which states that asylum seekers should apply for protection in the country they first entered the European Union.
Border countries like Italy, Malta and Greece, have criticised the plan, citing the disproportionate burden the regulation puts on them.
Italy and Malta are confronted with especially high numbers of boat arrivals each year, many of whom come from Afghanistan, Eritrea and, increasingly, Syria.
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.
- 19-20 December: Task force on immigration reports to EU leaders at the European Council summit.
- December 2013: Eurosur is set to enter into force