A European tragedy


A child sleeps at the "Temporary Permanence Center" (CPT) in Lampedusa on Friday.


Alberto Pizzoli

BRUSSELS, Belgium — More than 15,000 people have died in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea since the late 1990s after fleeing poverty, war and oppression in Africa, Asia and the Middle East for a better life in Europe.

Now routine, the deaths rarely make international headlines.

Campaigners complain Europeans preoccupied with their economic crisis, and fearful of migrants competing for ever-scarcer job opportunities and social security handouts, have become indifferent, even hostile, to the migrants' plight.

The scale of Thursday's tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa could change that.

Pope Francis denounced as a "disgrace" the death of up to 300 Africans after their boat caught fire and sank. Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano, who spoke of a "European tragedy," has appealed for assistance. Newspaper headlines across the continent are demanding action.

"The tragedy of Lampedusa's refugees shames Europe," said Spain's El Pais. "Lampedusa: the guilt of Europe's indifference," headlined the front page of Le Monde in France.

The Italian government was quick to repeat demands for greater support from the rest of Europe to help it cope the flow of refuges. Estimates of the numbers making the perilous sea journey from North Africa toward Italy so far this year vary between 12,000 to 30,000.

Lampedusa, a tiny island just 70 miles from the coast of Tunisia, has borne the brunt of the influx.

"The sea is full of bodies, it's a horror without end," said the island's Mayor Giusi Nicolini in tears as victims were brought to quayside. "How much longer can this go on? This had to stop," she told Italian TV.

But at European Union headquarters in Brussels, officials rejected charges of inaction and hailed the efforts of the EU's frontier agency in the Mediterranean.

"We have taken action, we have done what we've been asked to do, Frontex has saved 16,000 lives over the past two years in the Mediterranean, so I'm not going to let anybody say things that are not true," said Michele Cercone, the European Commission's home affairs spokesman.

EU officials do acknowledge that cuts to the bloc's budget demanded by wealthy northern nations such as Britain, Germany and Sweden have reduced the resources available to Frontex while demands on the border agency have increased.

The agency's budget has fallen from $160 million in 2011 to just $115 million this year.

Human rights campaigners complain that the focus of European sea border patrols has been more on barring entry rather than savings lives.

"Preventing deaths at sea needs to be at the heart of a coordinated European-wide approach to boat migration," Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, posted on the group's web site.

She said EU countries must resolve issues over the responsibility for handling rescued migrants, improve coordination between agencies and remove disincentives for commercial vessels to rescue migrants and bring them to shore.

Campaigners also complain that anti-immigration laws passed under Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have left fishermen and commercial crews concerned they could be prosecuted if they bring rescued migrants home.

Although local fishermen joined rescue efforts off Lampedusa on Thursday, there were unconfirmed reports in Italian media that some fishing boats had earlier ignored the stricken vessel.

In Brussels, Cercone underscored the difficulties in tracing the small boats used by people traffickers across vast areas.

He said the EU is putting in place a new surveillance system that would coordinate data between national authorities and improve tracking of vessels in the region. It is also seeking to step up cooperation with authorities in North Africa to better police boats leaving their ports.

"Tragedies like this happen because we cannot detect the presence of these boats and then, not knowing they are, we cannot provide assistance on time," he said.

However, he cautioned that the sheer scale of the problem meant that tragedies at sea would continue.

"We should have no illusions about this,” Cercone added. “It's not realistic to expect, given the migrationary pressure that we're seeing, that we will able to avoid all deaths in the Mediterranean. We cannot be naive about this.”

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Italy has also been pressing other EU members to help it share the burden of handling refugees once they reach its territory. However, most others have been reluctant to modify rules stipulating EU countries in which refugees first arrive and apply for asylum are responsible for their care and handling their requests.

Northern Europeans countries point out that although Italy is a favored destination for boat people from North Africa, other EU members actually receive many more refugees. Official EU data shows Germany received 77,000 asylum requests last year, France 60,000 and Sweden 43,000 compared to Italy’s 15,000.

Figures from the first quarter of 2013 show the numbers have risen sharply across the EU as more and more Syrians seek refuge in Europe.