EPP group leader Manfred Weber has called for a “clear and tough fight” against people who smuggle illegal immigrants into Europe.
Speaking at a news conference in Parliament, the German deputy stressed the need to “make a clear separation” between refugees and illegal migrants.
He said, “If do not do so we will lose the support of the public.”
Weber said that the issue of tackling illegal immigration is key for the next European election campaign, adding, “We simply have to take more responsibility for our own security.”
His comments come as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on Tuesday that the country will take in a rescue ship stranded in the Mediterranean, to help avoid a humanitarian disaster.
Sánchez said he would give safe harbour to the Aquarius and the 629 people on board, after Italy and Malta both refused to let the ship dock.
The UN refugee agency and the EU had both called for a swift end to the stand-off between the two countries.
The migrants aboard the Aquarius were picked up from inflatable boats off the coast of Libya at the weekend, in six different rescue operations, according to the NGO SOS Méditerranée.
Those saved include 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 younger children and seven pregnant women, SOS Méditerranée said. The minors are aged between 13 and 17 and come from Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan.
Weber, speaking in Strasbourg, said that while he was sympathetic to the plight of those on board, he also wants to see a tough line taken against illegal immigrants.
He told reporters, “If we don’t solve the migration question it will impose a very strong burden in the next election. People expect us to solve this problem and solving it is possible. That is why we ask everyone to be fully constructive. Obviously, we can see this current tragedy but there is also a much bigger question ahead of us.
“The lives of people are a priority but we must also stop illegal migration to the EU. We have to identify the hotspots for illegal immigration outside the EU. What we know is that for the Mediterranean routes, the figures are very high.
“But this is mostly illegal migration and what we have to do is separate the two things: the refugees coming from Syria and other civil war regions and, on the other hand, illegal migration.”
Weber added, “The legal situation is crystal clear. While the EPP advocates a tough, hard and clear border protection policy, it also wants a clear, tough and ambitious resettlement programme for refugees.”
Referring to those on board the Aquarius, he asked, “Are they illegal immigrants or are they refugees? The majority of those arriving via the Mediterranean are illegal migrants and, as such, they must go back home. If they are refugees the can stay but if they are not they must go back home.”
He said, “We all agree that we must rescue people but the key question is what happens afterwards?
“I underline that, yes, we have a huge responsibility in the EU to these people, for example, in providing medical care, and that is why my group is committed to do more on resettlement for refugees.
“We should welcome genuine refugees and asylum seekers in Europe but, on the other hand, we must stop the business of the smugglers. The current mechanisms are not good enough and that is why we cannot continue like this.
“That is why, for example, we are asking for tough border checks. To do so is not being inhuman. I have been here in this Parliament for 14 years and every summer we have the same debate so we need to address it.”
S&D group leader Udo Bullmann, addressing another press conference, pledged his group “won’t give up on migration or rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean.”
The German deputy said, “This is a matter of life and death and that is why I have asked European Council President Donald Tusk to put this issue on the agenda of the summit at the end of this month.”
He praised the intervention of Spain in agreeing to take in the passengers of the Aquarius.
He said, “The Prime Minister took a bold decision. You can feel the fresh wind coming from Madrid, it is inspiring.
“Many shy away from taking such action but he was bold enough to do something and tough enough to stand up and suggest a different way of solving this problem.”
Bullmann added, “What we need are structural solutions and that is why we will put pressure on Tusk to comply with his legal obligations, to deliver and put the migration issue on the agenda at the June summit.”
In a tweet, ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstadt spoke of the “desperate human beings stranded at sea and international commitments abandoned.”
He added, “This is not good enough. For the sake of our Union we need to urgently reform our migration systems to deliver a truly European solution based on solidarity and responsibility.”
Greens co-leader Ska Keller said, “It is always the same: those countries where there are no immigrants always call for more solidarity but it is the opposite in countries with immigrants.”