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Europe’s refugee crisis

Rickety boats used to smuggle migrants into Europe ‘made in China’

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s commissioner for migration, calls on Beijing for help in closing down supply of cheap rafts tied to thousands of deaths in Mediterranean Sea

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 7:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 11:38pm

The European Union has a long list of products it says China sells too much of in its markets. Add inflatable boats to the list.

“The rubber boats used by the smuggler networks in the Mediterranean are fabricated somewhere in China,” Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, told journalists in Beijing on Thursday after he met China’s Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun.

At least 1 million people, mostly from the Middle East and North Africa, crossed the Mediterranean bound for Europe in 2015, with the number fell to 327,000 in the first 10 months of last year. Many of the crossing attempts are made using small boats far too small and unstable for open rough waters, and deaths from drowning are not uncommon. Last year, some 3,800 fatalities were recorded.

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But the rafts are relatively inexpensive and easily purchased. A search on Chinese e-commerce platform Alibaba.com found more than 2,500 companies selling different types of inflatable boats with the unit price as low as US$10. Alibaba Group owns the South China Morning Post.

It’s not known how many boats made in China are being used by smugglers to move the refugees, but Avramopoulos said he had requested cooperation from the Chinese authorities to “track down this business and dismantle it, because what they produce is not serving the common good of the country. It is a very dangerous tool in the hands of ruthless smugglers”.

Most of the asylum seekers have ended up in Germany but large numbers have also gone to Sweden. The EU has made a deal with Turkey to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Greece and the overland route to Germany, in return for EU funds, which has reduced the flow greatly, but thousands of migrants still try to reach Europe from Libya via sea routes.

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The EU has struggled with distributing the refugees among member states. Avramopoulos said he did not discuss with Guo, who is also a Chinese state councillor, the possibility of sending some of the refugees to China. “It’s too early to discuss it,” he said.

He announced the EU and China would start negotiations on a visa facilitation agreement, as well as on an agreement on cooperation in combating illegal migration.

The two negotiations would be concluded in parallel, he said.

On the issue of China’s global hunt for graft fugitives, Avramopoulos said the EU would be a China’s “strategic partner” but insisted the action was China’s internal matter.