Italy requires help of EU border agency to 'secure safety' of migrants

To ensure the safety of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from north Africa, Italy is planning to push for more help from the EU. Reports Gerald Callaghan

By Gerald Callaghan

20 Jun 2014

At the June European council summit in Brussels, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi will seek approval for border agency Frontex to lead Mare Nostrum, an EU-funded cross-border project exploring new ways of protecting the Mediterranean coastline.

The project, which rescued around 50,000 illegal migrants this year, will seek to ensure the safety of people aboard the crowded boats arriving from North Africa, a task which currently costs the Italian navy around €9m a month.

"Prime minister Renzi will present a plan to transform Frontex to take on the duties of the Mare Nostrum mission", Italian defence minister Roberta Pinotti said in a radio interview.

Mare Nostrum was introduced in October of last year after 366 people drowned in the Lampedusa tragedy when their boat capsized just off the coast of Sicily. The incident focused world attention on the desperate risks taken by many migrants in the pursuit of a better life.

However, Rome has repeatedly called for more EU involvement as the number of migrants has surged to levels last seen during the 2011 Arab Spring.

"Faced with this situation, one must decide not to let people - children and mothers - die at sea," Pinotti said.

"Prime minister Renzi will present a plan to transform Frontex to take on the duties of the Mare Nostrum mission" - Roberta Pinotti

At the moment, the EU's Dublin regulation requires migrants to apply for asylum in the country in which they arrive. This policy directly puts extra migratory pressure on member states on the EU's periphery, such as Portugal, Italy, Spain and Malta.

To counter the imbalance, Italy would like to see extra involvement from the EU to cope with the incoming migrants, spreading the cost out between all EU member states.

Italy's interior minister Angelino Alfano warned that Italian search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea would cease unless the European Union intervenes.

The Italian official cautioned that without more assistance he could authorise asylum seekers who reach Italy to travel to other parts of Europe in defiance of EU rules.

Echoing Alfano's calls, Amnesty International has condemned the EU's inaction after 10 people drowned off the coast of Libya last week, saying, "With virtually no safe and legal routes into Europe, people are increasingly pushed into the hands of smugglers and traffickers, and are forced to risk their lives on unseaworthy vessels".

In response, Michele Cercone, spokesperson for EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström, said there would be "full support from the commission by any means possible".

But he pointed out that Italy and Malta "are the main beneficiaries of EU funds for border surveillance and urgent measures have been taken".

Cercone said Italy had received an extra €30m since last year's Lampedusa tragedy, "We have extended two Frontex missions to support Italy. We are prepared to discuss additional measures of support," Cercone said.

"As for the solidarity of other member states in areas of national competence, we agree that those who are not facing strong migratory and asylum pressure should and can do a lot more," he said.

In 2013, Brussels released around €50m in emergency funding to member states to help them in their search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

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