Gruesome migrant deaths force divided EU to look ahead

Migrant coffins in Lampedusa. [European Commission]

A migrant crisis generating is slowly but surely transforming the European Union, which has until now been reluctant to share the burden, and take responsibility.

Hundreds of migrants may have died off the coast of Libya yesterday (27 August) when their boat capsized. The incident adds to the shock of the discovery of a truck with corpses in a parked lorry in Austria, and has prompted politicians to say that “we cannot go on this way”.

A security official in the Libyan city of Zuwara said several hundred people had been on board a boat that sank off the coast on Thursday. Some appeared to have been trapped in the hold when it capsized.

“Some 100 illegal migrants have survived,” the official said, adding that rescue operations were continuing. Those on board had been from sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco and Bangladesh, he added.

This may be one of the biggest incidents at sea since the beginning of the migrant crisis, following another incident on Wednesday (26 August) in which 50 people died.

>>Read: More than 50 migrants found dead on boats near Libya coast

But politicians reacted with more shock at the news of the discovery of a lorry in Austria with several dozen corpses, as the carnage appears to be caused by European traffickers.

>>Read: Up to 50 migrants found dead in truck in Austria

The abandoned refrigerated lorry was found by an Austrian highway patrol near the Hungarian border, with fluids from the decomposing bodies seeping from its back door.

Police initially said it could take until Friday (28 August) to determine the exact number of victims, which they thought were more than 20 and could be as many as 50. This morning it was announced that the number turned to be 70.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a summit on the West Balkans in Vienna: “We are of course all shaken by the appalling news. This reminds us that we must tackle quickly the issue of immigration and in a European spirit – that means in a spirit of solidarity – and find solutions.”

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann told the summit: “The refugees who died today wanted to save their own lives by fleeing, but instead lost their lives at the hands of traffickers.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she hoped the tragedy would push member states to “take decisions and responsibility”. European Commissioner Johannes Hahn reiterated that Brussels would propose within weeks a fresh look at the situation, with a view to sharing responsibility between countries.

“We will have another go at quotas. I hope that in the light of the most recent developments now there is a readiness among all the 28 (EU member states) to agree on this,” he said.

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos issued a statement, calling the act “frankly shocking”.

“These are sinister, criminal acts, carried out by smugglers with no scruples whatsoever,” the EU representatives said.

“Chancellor Faymann is right when he says we cannot go on this way. This is not an Austrian crisis. This is not an Italian, French, German or a Greek or a Hungarian crisis. This is a European crisis and it requires a collective European response,” Timmermans and Avramopoulos stated.

Now is the moment of joint actions, the EU representatives said.

“The Commission put that European response on the table – from increasing our presence at sea, to cooperating with countries of origin and transit, to clamping down on smuggling networks, making returns more effective and implementing the recently adopted common EU asylum rules whilst showing solidarity with frontline countries. We have to address the issue from all angles. We already announced that further proposals will come soon,” said Timmermans and Avramopoulos.

ECRE, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, called on EU institutions and member states for more robust solidarity with Greece and the refugees it is receiving given the unprecedented numbers of arrivals to the EU on Greek shores.

In particular, they called that the political agreement reached on relocation, which only foresees 16,000 persons to be relocated from Greece within 2 years, to be increased to at least 70,000 within one year.

More financial and technical support is needed for the efforts of the many volunteers, local organisations and NGOs in Greece who are working in very difficult conditions and whose resources and capacity are already severely stretched, ECRE said.

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