Mediterranean migrant drama to haunt EU summit

The migrant drama unfolding across the Mediterranean is set to overshadow a European Union summit Thursday and Friday, following the deaths by drowning of over 400 refugees desperate to reach Europes shores.

The summit was due to focus on ways of promoting Europes high-tech and digital economy to help revive growth and create jobs for the 28-nation bloc’s half-a-billion people.

But the shocking deaths of hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East off EU shores in two shipwrecks this month has triggered a barrage of calls for action to prevent the Mediterranean Sea from turning into a giant cemetery.

“Europe cannot sit there and watch,” Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said Tuesday as the EUs economically-battered southern states pleaded with wealthier northern Europe to agree to accelerate burden-sharing on migration at the summit.

Italy wants the EUs Frontex border agency to be strengthened and a new program to share satellite and drone surveillance data, Eurosur, to be launched sooner than its scheduled December start date to help search-and-rescue operations.

Frontex reportedly saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean in the last two years but due to crisis-era belt-tightening has seen its budget fall from 118 million euros ($162 million) in 2011 to 85 million euros this year.

Italy meanwhile says migrant numbers increased fourfold this year to 30,000, Spain says twice as many Africans — 3,000 — have tried to slip through its barbed-wire exclave of Melilla in Morocco this year, and Bulgaria reports seven times as many people trying to cross its border illegally in 2013.

“Our borders are Europes borders and human trafficking is knocking on our doors,” said Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras as he and Maltese counterpart Jospeh Muscat pleaded for the summit “to share the responsibilities.”

Analysts say it is high time for the EU to define a common policy that will address how to respond jointly to refugees from conflict, who have an international right to protection, and migrants in search of a better life.

“Far too many people are dying every year at the EUs external borders,” said Yves Pascouau of the European Policy Centre think-tank. “EU leaders cannot escape answering the remaining questions any longer.”

On October 3, 366 refugees from Eritrea and Somalia died off Italy’s Lampedusa island when their boat caught fire and capsized. On October 12, a boat carrying families fleeing war in Syria flipped over off Malta, killing at least 36.

A draft summit statement obtained by AFP shows EU leaders expressing “deep sadness at the recent tragic events” but postponing long term decisions to a summit in June next year.

In other business, the 28 heads of state and government gathering in Brussels from 1500 GMT on Thursday will look at new telecoms rules including the end of roaming fees.

France meanwhile will push for Europe-wide regulations and tax rules on American Internet giants and urge new EU-wide data privacy protections after fresh allegations of US intelligence snooping on citizens’ phone calls.

Paris has reacted angrily to reports that the US National Security Agency (NSA) secretly monitored tens of millions of phone calls in France and says there can be no development of the digital industry without a deal on protecting personal data.

Though the region’s economic crisis has eased, leaders will again discuss how to cut youth unemployment, now affecting almost one in five EU citizens aged under 25 but topping 60 percent in Greece and at well over 50 percent in Spain. [AFP]

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