EU wants major Mediterranean rescue mission after Lampedusa

The EU’s executive was on Tuesday expected to push for extra resources to launch sea patrols to cope with the flood of refugees knocking at Europe’s doors in the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy.

The EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said as she went into talks with the 28-nation bloc’s home affairs ministers that she would propose “a big Frontex operation right across the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain for a big save and rescue operation.”

Frontex is the agency set up by the European Union in 2004 to police the bloc’s borders against illegal migration.

But the Warsaw-based agency, which coordinates and develops border management and joint operations, has seen its budget fall over the past three years and relies on donations from member states for ships, helicopters and other equipment.

The shipwreck off Lampedusa last week in which more than 300 African asylum-seekers are feared dead was expected to dominate Tuesday’s talks between the ministers.

As the ministers met, divers brought up four more bodies off Lampedusa as they resumed the search for the more than 200 still missing after their ship sank with 500 Eritrean and Somalian refugees on board.

Rescuers pulled 155 people from the sea after the boat sank and so far 235 bodies have been found. The final toll is expected to be between 300 and 360 dead.

Malmstroem will join European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso when he travels to the site of the shipwreck on Wednesday.

Italy has appealed to EU states for help in coping with the refugees washing up on its shore and wants migration issues to be put on the agenda of summit talks in Brussels at the end of the month.

Italy says 30,000 migrants have arrived so far this year – more than four times the number from last year – and complains that other nations, particularly in wealthier northern Europe, should share the burden.

Recession-hit Greece is also a major gateway for undocumented immigrants from Africa and Asia seeking to enter the EU.

The number of people crossing illegally into Greece via the country’s northeastern Evros border with Turkey has dropped since the government constructed a 10.5 kilometer fence along the frontier.

But strengthened security at Evros has intensified the influx via the islands of the eastern Aegean. Hundreds die every year as they seek to reach Greece’s coastline.

Frontex is reported to have saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean over the last two years. Due to crisis-era belt-tightening its budget has slipped from 118 million euros ($160 million) in 2011 to 90 million in 2012 and 85 this year.

Meanwhile in Italian waters, a Danish and a Panamanian boat respectively saved 141 refugees from Syria heading for Sicily, and 263 Syrians and Palestinians whose boat was in met trouble 100 kilometers off the Sicilian coast. [AFP, Kathimerini English Edition]

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