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Migration

EU to help Italy rescue migrants at sea

The EU will launch a new migrant rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, to succeed Italy’s Mare Nostrum mission. Against the background of growing refugee numbers, there are calls for an EU Migration Commissioner.

Initially, the new mission, dubbed "Frontex Plus," will supplement Italian efforts in the Mediterranean Sea to rescue migrants, the EU's Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström said on Wednesday after meeting Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano in Brussels. The goal is to replace Mare Nostrum by the end of November.

Large numbers of refugees arriving by boat from Africa have overwhelmed authorities in the south of the EU over recent years. After more than 350 refugees aboard a single capsized boat were killed last year off the Italian island of Lampedusa, the government in Rome launched the "Mare Nostrum" ("Our Sea") mission. The Italian navy has since patrolled the Mediterranean and escorted migrants found at sea to safe ports.

The Italian government had threatened to phase out its 'Mare Nostrum' rescue operation.

A record number of more than 100,000 refugees have landed on the Italian coast this year alone - msny of them fleeing either the war in Syria or instability in Libya. The government in Rome had threatened to shut down "Mare Nostrum" unless it received help from EU partners. Commissioner Malmström from Sweden said Italy must not be left alone in dealing with this challenge and that the European Commission "will do its utmost to make sure that the whole European Union, that all the member states, will play an increased role in helping Italy to manage the migration issue in the Mediterranean."

Turning words into actions

Mare Nostrum has not helped prevent tragic incidents with many casualties. Last week alone, 300 refugees died trying to cross the Mediterranean. "After each tragedy in the Mediterranean there have been calls from all member states saying that they deplore these losses of lives," said Malmström, who added that "oral solidarity now needs to be transformed into concrete action."

Calls by the Italian government for the EU to take over Mare Nostrum's efforts had been dismissed as "unrealistic" by German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere (CDU), who cited a lack of resources at a July meeting with colleagues in Milan.

Malmström announced that two existing Frontex missions, called Hermes and Aenaes, will be merged together and "upgraded." She called on all EU member states to support the project by making human resources, equipment, and funds available. "As you well know, there are no European border guards nor planes or ships, so the success of this operation will depend on the contribution of EU member states," the Commissioner stressed.

Focus on deterring migrants?

Boats are often hopelessly overcrowded.

The "S&D" group of Socialists and Democrats within the European Parliament seized the opportunity to repeat their criticism of the way the other two European institutions have been handling refugee and asylum issues. The Council of the 28 member states, in particular, has in the past repeatedly been criticized for focussing on the best ways to deter migrants rather than tackling what some call a long overdue reform of refugee and asylum rules within the EU.

"Asylum seekers must not have to risk their lives at sea in order to exercise a fundamental right," said Gianni Pittella, president of the S&D group in the European Parliament, in a written statement, referring to current EU rules which say that asylum seekers can only file their application in the country where they first step on EU soil. "We call on the Commission and Council to urgently assess ways in which, based on existing EU legislation and tools, asylum and protection requests can undergo the first stage of processing in countries neighboring the areas of crisis - while fully respecting fundamental rights in order to ensure a safe gateway for those eligible to enter the EU," he added.

The German Association of Towns and Municipalities this week joined in calls for the position of a new EU Commissioner for Refugees to be included in the next European Commission, currently being formed by President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker. Against the background of growing refugee numbers, there was an increased need for a common European policy regarding asylum seekers and civil war refugees, the association's CEO Gerd Landsberg told newspaper Die Welt on Tuesday. "In the medium term, we will have to create a system which manages a fair distribution of refugees across the EU."

'The devil is in the details'

The land route into the EU has been largely sealed off, Bulgaria built this fence along its Turkish border this year

There have also been proposals to introduce a Commissioner for Migration. But many doubt whether such a person would have the necessary clout to make a difference. "In many ways it's long overdue, with free movement being such a key achievement for the European Union and the Schengen area," said Elizabeth Collett of such a position. She is the director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe. But "the devil is in the details," she argues in her article by the same name. "Migration is a multidimensional policy area: it touches on everything from foreign policy, through to maritime policy, social affairs and employment," she told Deutsche Welle. "It is by its very nature, a crosscutting area, and to deal with migration effectively you have to take a comprehensive approach."

With the European Union increasingly under pressure, however, Elizabeth Collett is convinced that "we will see some version of a Commissioner for Migration." She has observed an increased recognition among national politicians in the EU of the need for better coordination among member states. "But the problem as always is: Can member states in the European Union agree on what level of coordination can be justified?"

Yves Pascouau, migration policy expert with Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre (EPC), said the announcement made by Commissioner Malmström showed that the calls by Italian authorities had at last been heard by Italy's partners in the EU, but that more had to be done on a European level. "In the short term, it's a good thing that we are helping Italy in this regard," he told Deutsche Welle, but went on to warn that "developing management border actions will not suffice to limit the number of people arriving in the European Union."

Instead, he said, the EU and its member states had to look into possibilities of how "to act outside their territory in order to decrease conflicts, in order to avoid conflicts or to end conflicts."