Refugee Tragedies In The Mediterranean

UPDATE: The summit meeting on refugee policy of the European heads of state in Brussels at the end of October resulted in no concrete changes or conclusion on the topic. In the meantime, another 800 refugees arrived in Lampedusa and Sicily.

The two-day summit discussed the distribution of refugees within the European Union according to the Dublin-II-Agreement, the possibilities of preventing more tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea and finally concluded to postpone all long-lasting decisions to another summit in June 2014. A proposition presented by the Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, of creating a refugee quota that would lead to an equal distribution of refugees within the member states of the European Union received no majority. The summit introduced a task force in charge of working out concrete measures in refugee policy until December. These include the further development of Frontex and finding ways of targeting gangs smuggling illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, since the boat tragedy in Lampedusa on October 3rd, another 800 immigrants have reached Italian shores. 250 immigrants were rescued from their boats off the coast of Lampedusa, 95 of which are from Eritrea. Another 400 immigrants were rescued and brought to Sicily. Italy embarked on a new mission called „mare sicuro“ (Safe Ocean) in the beginning of October, which includes tighter surveillance of the Mediterranean Sea with a higher number of boats, planes, helicopters and even drones, all equipped with infrared devices.

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On October 3rd 2013 a boat sunk close to Lampedusa carrying about 545 refugees on board. 155 persons survived the tragedy, while up until now 339 were found dead and another 50 are missing. The majority of the persons on board were from Eritrea. While many heated debates ensued in the European Union and allegations and demands were made by the mayor of Lampedusa, the Italian prime minister as well as his colleague, the prime minister of Malta, the European Parliament passed new legislation to help secure the European borders. On October 11th yet another boat sunk 70 nautical miles east of Lampedusa in Maltese waters. Initial reports claimed 250 refugees on board – meanwhile the media is talking about another 500. 50 persons died, amongst them women and children.

The Italian government claims that over 30.000 migrants arrived in Italy by boat in 2013. The vast majority of them are from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia. The United Nations states similar numbers of over 32.000 migrants arriving in Italy and Malta this year. Two-thirds have sought for asylum. The EU received 36.650 asylum requests this year, already roughly 10.000 more than in 2012. In the first six months of 2013, 3.648 refugees have landed on the small island of Lampedusa. The two camps on the island are hopelessy overfilled.

The Dublin-II-Agreement of 2003, decided upon by the Ministers of the Interior of the individual EU member states, controls the European law of asylum. The agreement states that refugees have to apply for asylum and stay in the EU member state where they first touched European grounds. This regulation comes at a great cost to Italy and Greece: 90% of the refugees who reach Europe enter through these countries.

The European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, better known as Frontex, was founded in 2004 and is situated in Warsaw. The agency „promotes, coordinates and develops European border management in line with EU fundamental rights charter“ ( Frontex registered that the biggest entry of irregular migrants into the EU is over airports – the valid and legal visas are simply overstayed. Frontex also identified 8 main migratory routes into the EU by land and by sea. The one most frequented is the Eastern Mediterranean route, i.e. immigration through Greece. In 2012, a total of 37.220 migrants reached the EU through this route. The majority of the migrants came from Afghanistan, Syria and Bangladesh. The big boat accidents that occured in October this year happened along the Apulia and Calabria route, as well as the Central Mediterranean route. Many refugees from Somalia, Eritrea and Tunisia use the latter route, while refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh enter through Apulia and Calabria.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, the largest groups of asylum seekers in Europe are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Serbia and Kosovo, Somalia, and since 2011 from Syria. The total number of Syrian asylum seekers has grown, especially in Sweden and Germany.

While major NGOs like ProAsyl and several European politicians speak of  the Mediterranean Sea as a cemetery and thus comment on the hundreds of deaths occuring off shores, the European Parliament has called a new system of surveillance into life. Eurosur is supposed to be ready for use in the next two months. The main objectives of Eurosur are fighting gangs smuggling illegal immigrants, helping persons caught in distress at sea and finding illegal immigrants earlier, before they arrive at the European borders.

Help organisations like Fortress Europe estimate that since 1994 over 6.800 refugees have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Other help organisations state higher numbers of up to 25.000 deaths since 1990.

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