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Apr 23, 2015 6:50 AM

EU leaders discuss more and faster action on Med migrants

The Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) European Union leaders are discussing plans to double financial sources to save lives in the Mediterranean where hundreds of migrants have drowned in recent days, and to capture and destroy vessels which could be used for trafficking, according to a draft statement prepared for Thursday's summit.

The latest draft statement, obtained by The Associated Press, would pledge the 28 nations to "increase search and rescue possibilities" and to "undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers."

It said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini would immediately start preparing an operation that would likely have a military component.

"We will take action now. 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.

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi agreed.

"European Union naval operations in the Horn of Africa have successfully fought piracy and a similar initiative must be developed to effectively fight against human trafficking in the Mediterranean," Renzi wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. "Trafficking vessels should be put out of operation."

A civil-military mission to do the job would face many legal hurdles and already proved controversial ahead of the summit.

The draft statement also said the nations want to "set up 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.

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 processed and deemed legitimate to stay. Under the plans that would be cut to as little as two months.

The leaders are under great pressure to react after more than 10,000 migrants were plucked from seas between Italy and Libya in a week.

EU President Donald Tusk urged the summit "to agree on very practical measures," including "strengthening search-and-rescue possibilities, by fighting the smugglers and by discouraging their victims from putting their lives at risk, while reinforcing solidarity."

The leaders are also to assess a concern raised by U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who called for a stronger EU search-and-rescue operation and more legal migration channels. "We all have a moral imperative to act swiftly," Ban says in a letter to Tusk obtained by The Associated Press.

EU officials say the leaders will commit to doubling the size of the European border agency effort in the Mediterranean, but those operations are designed for monitoring migrant movements, not necessarily saving lives.

Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders want a multinational rescue effort launched to help the thousands fleeing conflict and poverty from places like Syria, Eritrea and Somalia.

"The stakes are very high. The number of hours, literally, that it takes to take action will make the difference between life and death," Iverna McGowan, acting director of Amnesty's European Institutions Office told The Associated Press.

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 UN'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 transit route.

A smaller EU mission dubbed Triton was left to fill the vacuum. It has no mandate for rescue work, although it does respond to distress calls under international obligations and has saved thousands of lives since its launch late last year.

Currently, five of the 28 member states Italy, Greece, Malta, Germany and Sweden are handling almost 70 percent of the migrants coming in.


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