At least nine dead after migrant boat sinks

UPDATED: The Italian coastguard said on Monday it recovered nine bodies after a boat with over 150 migrants aboard sank off Libya during a surge in attempted illegal crossings to Europe that saw almost 6,000 migrants rescued.

At least nine dead after migrant boat sinks
Italian coastguards have recovered nine bodies from the sea after a boat carrying more than 150 migrants sank off the coast of Libya. Photo: Moas

Rescuers managed to save 144 of the migrants and were still searching for others after their vessel overturned 128 kilometres off the Libyan coast.

The total number of passengers on the boat and their nationalities was not yet known.

On Sunday alone the Italian coastguard rescued a total of 3,791 migrants, bringing the total to 5,629 since Friday, authorities said.

Recent good weather in the Mediterranean has prompted a surge in the number of migrants setting off for Italy aboard boats. As a result at least 10 rescue operations were underway on Monday.

A coastguard member said the 5,629 migrants rescued was not a record, but the number was very high for the month of April.

According to Italian authorities more than 15,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far in 2015. There were 15,000 in April alone last year and an average of 25,000 each month between June and September.

Tunisia's coastguard and navy on Monday also rescued 174 migrants from two boats which broke down as they headed from Libya to Italy.

The Red Crescent said the migrants – 90 on one boat and 84 on the other – sent out a distress call from off the coast of southeast Tunisia as they headed for the Italian island of Lampedusa.

'Woefully inadequate'

"It's clear that the flux of migration from Libya is going to continue," said William Lacy Swing, director general of the International Office of Migration (IOM).

The head of the European Union's border control agency Frontex said last month he fears as many as a million migrants could try to reach Europe this year from Libya alone.

The number of migrants entering the European Union illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via the often dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

An increasingly violent and chaotic situation in Libya, a key jumping off point for migrants, has also helped prompt the huge hike in the number of asylum seekers trying to reach Europe.

About 400 people, according to the IOM, have died in recent months, fuelling criticism of rescue efforts.

The UN's refugee agency UNHCR in February slammed as "woefully inadequate" Triton, the Frontex-run maritime border patrol which, since November, has replaced Mare Nostrum, a much bigger search and rescue operation that was run by the Italian navy.

Italy decided to scale back the mission after its EU partners refused to share running costs of around €9 million ($10 million) a month.

Triton has a monthly budget of €2.9 million and its patrols are generally restricted to the territorial waters of EU member states.

People smuggling remains a lucrative business for traffickers, with migrants rescued in the Mediterranean in February saying they paid between $500-$1,000 for their crossing in boats that are often no more than rubber dinghies.



How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.