EU leaders commit ships, aid for action on Med migrants

World Today

From left, clockwise, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron take part in a meeting during an emergency EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, April 23, 2015. EU leaders are facing calls from all sides to take emergency action to save lives in the Mediterranean, where hundreds of migrants are missing and feared drowned in recent days. (Yves Herman/Pool Photo via AP)

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders on Thursday started committing new resources to save lives in the Mediterranean at an emergency summit convened after hundreds of migrants drowned in the space of a few days, and discussed action to destroy vessels that could be used for trafficking.

“First and foremost now, we have to save lives and take the right measures to do so,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she arrived.

The latest summit draft statement, obtained by The Associated Press, would pledge the 28 nations to double their spending to save lives, “increase search and rescue possibilities” and to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers.”

Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would contribute the navy’s flagship, HMS Bulwark, along with three helicopters and two border patrol ships to the EU effort. “As the country in Europe with the biggest defense budget we can make a real contribution,” but added that this would not include accepting a share of the refugees.

German army sources told the DPA news agency Berlin would offer to send the troop supply ship “Berlin” as well as frigates “Karlsruhe” and “Hessen” toward Italy. The ships currently participate in the anti-piracy operation Atalanta at the Horn of Africa and could be in the Mediterranean within five days.

Belgium also committed a navy ship on Thursday.

The task ahead is huge, with more than 10,000 migrants plucked from seas between Italy and Libya just over the last week.

For several years, EU leaders have done little more than deplore the rising death toll and mark tragedies with moments of silence and wreaths instead of fundamental action.

Even optimists say any emergency measures agreed at Thursday’s summit would not fully stem the tide of rickety ships crossing the Mediterranean.

“Europe is declaring war on smugglers,” said the EU’s top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who was in Malta to attend the funeral of 24 migrants who perished at sea.

So far, that has been a halfhearted skirmish, lamented Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the EU parliament’s liberal ALDE group.

He complained the EU border operation Frontex had only two helicopters and seven ships in the Mediterranean. “We need a multitude out there,” he said.

The draft statement also called for “a first voluntary pilot project on resettlement, offering at least 5,000 places to persons qualifying for protection.”

That resettlement plan would amount to about half of the number which arrived in just the last week and a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands likely to arrive this year.

Here too a continental rift was already obvious, with countries like Germany, Sweden, France and Italy dealing with a disproportionate number of asylum requests while many eastern member states hardly take any. Five of the 28 member states are handling almost 70 percent of the migrants coming in.

Cameron, two weeks away from a national election in which immigration is a major issue, said Britain was not in the front line to take more migrants. British vessels would take migrants “to the nearest safe country, mostly likely Italy,” he said.

In a joint statement, the U.N.’s top refugee and migration officials called for an EU-wide resettlement plan and for beefing up the capacity of front-line countries Greece, Italy and Malta to receive more migrants.

The draft statement also proposes cutting the time needed to process would-be migrants, which can now take up to a year before a person is deemed legitimate to stay, to as little as two months.

Some lawmakers are concerned that the leaders may stump up rescue assets while the media spotlight is on their summit, but that commitments to solidarity could quickly fade away, as they have in the past.

“I fear that what will happen … is that they will try to water down a few of the points and the actual reason why they are meeting — to urgently seek solutions to what is happening today — will not be the focus of the deal,” Roberta Metsola, the leading EU parliament lawmaker on migration, told the AP.

According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, 219,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean last year, and at least 3,500 died trying. More than 1,000 are believed to have died already this month alone.

Critics blame the increased deaths on the phasing-out of Italy’s big rescue operation in 2013-14, Mare Nostrum, which worked close to the coast of Libya — the biggest migrant departure point.

Story by the Associated Press.