STRASBOURG — European countries must share the number of refugees that head for their shores, or face thousands more dying in the Mediterranean, EU politicians have warned.
The crises Syria and Libya has left Europe facing the highest number of desperate refugees since the Balkan War 20 years ago, MEPs warned in Strasbourg, but many said European countries were not sharing the burden equally.
The Dublin Regulation stipulates that refugees must currently stay in the country where they first enter the EU, which some experts have advocated suspending until the crisis eases.
Italy’s Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) naval operation has rescued some 150,000 people attempting to make the perilous journey by boat to Europe, mostly from north Africa.
But the £7million-a-month mission has now been suspended, with the country saying it cannot cope with the numbers, and demanding other states share the burden.
Coffins of some of the hundreds of African migrants who drowned off the island of Lampedusa in October 2013
Now the only service looking out for refugees is the EU’s Triton force, which is a spotting service, rather than search-and-rescue. Britain has refused to aid search-and-rescue missions, saying that it acts as a “push” for refugees and economic migrants to head for Europe.
Labour MEP Claude Moraes, who chairs the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee at the EU Parliament, told HuffPost UK that more Lampedusas were inevitable, with the anti-immigration “white noise” that is so prevalent in Europe.
“You can’t ask one country to deal with this, Italy just wants people to share the burden,” he said, though cautioning it would be “inappropriate to give EU funding to the Italian military”.
“Member states just have no political will to help. And we need to be absolutely clear, it is because politicians know there is no votes in this. They can stand back and say, we won’t put resources in and know it won’t cost them votes.”
Mr Moraes was particular scathing of the comments made by the Home Office that saving migrants at sea tempted more people to attempt the dangerous journey, and said it had left the UK looking isolated.
“Only the UK is making that connection,” he said. “It really singled us out. Britain should never have crossed that line. You can say you want to be tough on asylum seekers, but you do not cross the line in terms of the immediate rescue of people drowning at sea. That is basic observance of international law.
“A politician is saying it’s ok to let people drown. It got the reaction it deserved.”
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Several Italian MEPs took grave exception to Britain’s comments in Strasbourg when the Parliament met on Tuesday. MEP Barbara Spinelli called Britain’s assessment “a crime against European civilisation. We must not cause mass drownings.”
Matteo Salvini, the Italian MEP for the right-wing Lega Nord, said that UK was being deeply “hypocritical”, both opposing the rescue of migrants, refusing funding, but also supporting the wars that created the issues.
But he added: “Borders are there for a purpose and should be defended. It’s all very well to clap the Pope, but we are spending billions on this which does not help migrants and certainly doesn’t help European citizens.”
"The unfortunate inhabitants of these countries now leave in droves by any means necessary," Ukip MEP Gerard Batten told the chamber. "A holistic approach has to recognise the root cause, which is fundamentalist and extreme interpretation of Islamic ideology.
"The countries best placed to tackle this problem, and with the money to do so are of course the vastly oil-rich Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia. These are the countries that can take these people."
Mr Moraes, who is the first ethnic minority MEP, said he did not think that obliging states to resettle more displaced people was the real issue, preferring to focus on the need for a European-wide search and rescue operation supported by member states.
Labour MEP Claud Moraes attacked Britain's refusal to support search and rescue operations
The UK takes a “tiny” number of those needing resettlement – people that are likely to go back to their home country eventually like many Syrians – but argues that because it donates such huge sums to relief in the country, it is not obligated to take more people. Germany, conversely, pays far less, but takes more people.”
But several MEPs argued yesterday that the disparity in numbers means more people will die in the short-term.
“Fourteen countries are taking part in the resettlement programme, some accept fewer than 100 people per year,” Sweden MEP Cecilia Wikström said. “The world saw those 336 white coffins of the people who died at Lampedusa a year ago, it’s an image in our minds. What people forget is this is happening every day. More than 3,000 people have died this year, and it is growing, the year before it was just 600.”
Ska Keller, the German Green MEP, said failure to act by setting specific numbers or by failing to set up a European-wide search-and-rescue force for boats would leave the EU “complicit with the traffickers.”
“We have to open up safe routes to Europe, the only thing lacking is political will,” she said.
The only way to stop the boats in the long-term was to “make it easier for Syrian refugees to get to Europe”, said MEP Kashetu Kyenge, the former Italian minister for integration. “More than 80% of Syrians get political asylum in Europe now, why is it made so difficult for them to get into the EU? Thousands of these people plunge into the Mediterranean every year.”
“EU asylum policy has basically failed,” German MEP Cornelia Ernst said. “The member states have to take on binding responsibilities to take on refugees. People were just handed over the Nazis before, asylum is an inalienable right, I want to hear the commission defend that right.”