Italy tragedy highlights Europe's failure to cope with flood of asylum seekers

Harrowing scenes off coast of Italy highlight EU's inability to cope with rising number of migrants; millions more are expected soon

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 October, 2013, 4:21am

The deaths of scores of African asylum seekers off the Italian island of Lampedusa underlines Europe's failure to cope with the flood of would-be immigrants knocking at its doors.

Scenes of capsized boats and desperate, hungry faces have become commonplace in southern Europe.

About 25,000 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean in the last 20 years, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Of these, 2,000 died in 2011 and 1,700 last year.

But the deaths of up to 300 people in Thursday's tragedy, when their boat caught fire and sank, has added a sense of urgency to what was already a crisis.

A UN official blamed a repressive policy towards illegal immigrants for the tragedy.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he hoped the disaster would be a "spur to action" to protecting migrants' rights and improving the public perception of immigrants.

Rescue teams have so far recovered 111 bodies and expect to find more than 100 others in and around the wreck.

Rescue divers identified at least 40 more bodies in and around the sunken boat, which had been carrying about 500 from Somalia and Eritrea.

With only 150 survivors plucked from the water, there were fears the final toll could rise to more than 300. But despite the tragedy, there is no end in sight to the influx of asylum seekers.

Europe is braced for a potentially massive exodus from the war in Syria, where two million have fled across the borders and millions are internally displaced.

As was the case during the fighting in Libya in 2011 and the Arab spring protests across the Mediterranean, the pressure is on Europe's sea-washed southern nations - on Italy, Malta and Spain, but also on economically battered Greece and Cyprus. Italy called on Thursday for more help from the European Union to deal with the sharp increase in refugee numbers, with Alfano calling it "a European tragedy".

Under EU rules, it is up to the nation that is a refugee's first port of call to consider their request for asylum and to house them in the meantime.

There is no mechanism enabling an automatic share-out of refugees within the 28-member bloc and calls for a review are systematically knocked down by less affected countries.

Meanwhile asylum conditions differ from one state to the next regarding housing, health or welfare, with the Jesuit Refugee Service denouncing the "inhumanity" of Europe's asylum system in June.

To prevent tragedies such as Lampedusa, the European Commission has devised an external border surveillance system known as EUROSUR to pool information on boats believed to be carrying illegal migrants, fight trafficking networks and also help save refugees in distress.

Due to become operational in December, it has a budget of €244 million (HK$2.6 billion) through to 2020 and will go to the European Parliament for approval next week.

But some EU lawmakers say the system lacks muscle, such as providing for more sea patrols in dangerous waters.

"Italy is not prepared for the surge of migrants on its coasts," said European Greens co-leader Monica Frassoni. "The EU as a whole has a responsibility to develop a more humane and robust system."

In New York, a UN official said the "criminalisation of irregular immigration" had played a role in the Lampedusa tragedy.

"Treating irregular migrants only by repressive measures would create these tragedies," said Francois Crepeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.