Commission to help Italy cope with immigrants

African migrants, Turin. [Paul Keller/Flickr]

The European Commission said Wednesday (27 August) that it would launch an EU version of Italy’s sea rescue operation to help it deal with the droves of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in crowded boats from North Africa, something Italy has repeatedly requested.

Europe’s border control agency Frontex will take over the new operation, dubbed “Frontex Plus”, by merging two existing operations. Eventually, the new EU initiative will replace Italy’s costly mission to patrol the seas for boat migrants.

“The aim is to put in place an enlarged Frontex Plus to complement what Italy has been doing,” said Cecilia Malmström, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, on Wednesday.

The civil war in Syria and breakdown of order in Libya have pushed the number of sea-borne arrivals in Italy to a record of more than 100,000 this year, straining the resources of its navy and coastguard.

Italy’s navy has been patrolling the waters between Africa and Sicily since October, when 366 people drowned after their boat capsized just a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa.

>> Read: ‘Deeply sad’ EU leaders pledge ‘determined action’ to avert more Lampedusas

That prompted the launch of the Mare Nostrum or “Our Sea” search and rescue mission, which has been costing Italy €9 million a month.

But Italy has repeatedly called for Frontex to take over Mare Nostrum, and for other member states to share the burden.

Malmström has previously said that Frontex is too small to replace Mare Nostrum, while calls on member states have largely fallen on deaf ears partly because of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in countries such as Britain and France.

Frontex Plus will be more limited in scope than Mare Nostrum, Malmström said, and its success would depend on additional contributions from member states given Frontex’s limited resources.

“Member states will provide assets, planes, ships in order to guard European borders as best as we can,” said Angelino Alfano, Italy’s Interior Minister.

The exact details of the new mission will be worked out in the coming days with the aim of launching Frontex Plus in November, after which the Italian government will decide on how best to phase out Mare Nostrum, Alfano added.

The boats used to ferry migrants from Africa will also be destroyed on land to prevent them being re-used.

Since 1999, the EU has been working to create a Common European Asylum System, and set up a border agency called Frontex.  More recently, the European Parliament examined proposals to set up a new European border management system within Eurosur, the European external border surveillance system.

But the financial and economic crisis has taken its toll on Frontex, whose funding has been cut from €115 million in 2011 to €85 million this year after pressure from Britain and other northern EU countries to curb spending during the sovereign debt crisis.

New EU rules have 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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