EU under fire as migrant boat horror revealed

European governments came under increasing pressure on Tuesday to tackle the Mediterranean's migrant crisis ahead of an emergency summit, as harrowing details emerged of the fate of hundreds who died in the latest tragedy.

EU under fire as migrant boat horror revealed
Boats transporting migrants are getting more and more clapped out and crammed. Photo: Marina Militare/AFP

Allegations of callous disregard for Arab and African lives are haunting Europe's politicians as it was revealed that around 800 victims, including an unknown number of children, died in hellish circumstances off the coast of Libya on Sunday.

The migrants had been been locked in the hold or the middle deck of the 20-metre boat, according to survivors, which capsized when it collided with a Portuguese vessel.

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said the incident had occurred due to a "monumental failure of compassion" by the continent's rulers.

Stung by the full horror of the disaster, the UN Security Council called for a strengthened global response to migration and human trafficking, and the 15-member council voiced support for southern European countries struggling with the refugee influx.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker called for a show of "financial solidarity" towards the countries bearing the brunt of the drama.

Mere "compassionate rhetoric" was not enough, he said during a visit to Austria, whose Chancellor Werner Faymann would like to see massive refugee camps built in North Africa to shelter would-be migrants and refugees.

British Prime Minister David Cameron called for a halt to what he termed the "cargo of death" and the Times reported that Britain was considering sending a warship to help with rescue efforts.

French President Francois Hollande urged Europe "to go much further" in tackling the migrant crisis, and repeated calls for more maritime and aerial surveillance over the Mediterranean.

Hundreds crammed into rickety boats

As the boats get ever more rickety, the numbers crammed into them increase and the chances of catastrophe get higher.

It is not just the scaling back of Italy's naval search and rescue operation that has led to this year's surge in the number of people drowning in the Mediterranean as they seek to reach Europe from north Africa.

At least 1,750 asylum seekers or migrants have perished in the waters between Libya and Italy since the turn of the year, 30 times the total registered in the same period of 2014.

But the dramatically higher death toll does not reflect more people risking their lives to get to Europe: the numbers arriving in Italy are broadly flat – 22,000 up to April 20, compared with 26,600 for January-April 2014, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

"The boats are getting more clapped out and more packed at the same time," IOM spokesman Flavio di Giacomo told AFP. "Whether it is wooden fishing boats or rubber dinghies, the one thing they have in common is that they are always very, very old."

"After a few hours at sea, they start to take on water. That is why it is getting harder and harder to rescue them."

When an Italian coastguard vessel disembarked at Augusta in Sicily last week with 600 migrants rescued from five different boats over the course of two days, the aid workers at the scene all acted as it had been a totally routine operation.

But in reality each of the five incidents involved boats that came perilously close to sinking, according to the migrants on board.

"The water started coming in. We called for help at 1pm and then we waited, and waited," recounted Malik Tourey, a Nigerian who was on board one of the vessels.

"We had to bail out the boat, everyone together, everyone shivering, women crying. It wasn't until 3.00 a.m. the following day that the coastguard arrived."

Italian navy captain Michele Maltese, a spokesman for the coastguard based at Catania on Sicily's eastern coast, said the boats used by people smugglers have always been barely seaworthy.

"What is happening now is they are having more and more people packed onto them," he told AFP.

"On a fishing boat designed for a crew of ten, the traffickers find a way to squeeze between 400 and 500 on board. They become so unstable that a 30-centimetre (one-foot) high wave is enough to result in them taking on water," he said.

"Every boat that puts to sea is doing so at a very high risk (of sinking)."

The traffickers are so cynical they sometimes charge their passengers extra for a life jacket. Maamadou Dialo, who arrived earlier this month, was among those who stumped up, but soon discovered it was far from sound investment.

"It must have been made in China – after five minutes in the water you would have sunk!"

Maltese said Italian authorities tried to ensure traffickers' boats were confiscated and destroyed in Italian ports. But difficult sea conditions meant that was not always possible in the heat of a rescue operation and many are left to drift.

"Human safety is our priority," the coastguard said.

Twice this year traffickers have threatened Italian coastguards with weapons in order to recover and reuse boats from which the human cargo has been taken to safety.

Frontex, the European border agency, interpreted those incidents as a sign that the traffickers are running short of vessels. Others say it simply reflects their belief that they can pretty do what they like in the waters off lawless Libya.


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.