European Union leaders have agreed to triple funding for patrols in the Mediterranean and deploy navy ships to stem the soaring deaths of migrants from Africa.
They met in Brussels on Thursday to find solutions to the migration crisis, days after hundreds of people drowned in one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
The disaster prompted a public outcry and pushed the leaders to restore funding for patrols in the Mediterranean that had been cut late last year.
The governments of the 28-nation bloc also decided to draw up plans to combat the smuggling rings that have made a lucrative trade of bringing people to Europe.
Britain offered to send a warship to patrol between Sicily and the Libyan coast, while Germany, France, Ireland and other nations have volunteered ships as well.
“We have to restrict the criminal gangs, seize assets, hamper their activities,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
The number of migrants who have died in the Mediterranean has soared this year.
An estimated 1,750 have perished through April 21, compared with only 56 during the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Joel Millman, a spokesman for the IOM, said the main reason appears to be that smugglers are becoming more reckless, loading each boat with ever more migrants.
“We think the traffickers are operating with no fear of prosecution, no fear of punishment,” Millman said.
The leaders tasked EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini to ask the United Nations for permission to use air and naval power to destroy smugglers’ boats along the Libyan coast before they can use them.
The migrants come from the war-torn and impoverished countries to the south and east of Europe — Eritrea, Niger, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Their numbers are up sharply since 2011, driven in part by the war in Syria and economic growth in Africa that has given more people the means to pay for the journey to Europe.
The Italian government began a rescue operation called Mare Nostrum after a shipwreck near the Italian island of Lampedusa killed hundreds in October 2013.
But Italy ended the operation in October 2014. The EU replaced it with much smaller operations run by Frontex, the EU’s border agency, that are focused on controlling the bloc’s border, not search and rescue.
The decision drew widespread criticism from human rights groups.
“We arrived at tripling of funds because that’s what Mare Nostrum got,” Merkel said.
“If more is needed, it should be done. This shouldn’t fail because of money.”
Mare Nostrum involved vessels from the Italian navy, army, air force, police and coast guard.
Nearly 1,000 officers were part of the mission, including five naval units, six helicopters equipped with infrared lights, and three maritime patrol aircraft, among other equipment.
The Mare Nostrum mission, which cost US$9 million a month, patrolled very close to the Libyan coast, allowing the Italians to reach boats in distress quickly.
The Frontex missions generally have stayed within 30 miles of the Italian and Maltese coastlines.
EU leaders said the newly augmented Frontex mission would have the authority to conduct rescue missions in international waters.
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