Tragedy Prompts Calls For Change To EU Immigration Policies

The European Commission is calling on the European Union to launch a Mediterranean-wide search and rescue mission to intercept boats carrying migrants. Earlier this month, a boat filled with African migrants caught fire and sank off the coast of an Italian island.

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Countries in Europe have been struggling for some time to find a fair balance when it comes to immigration, and those efforts took on more urgency last week. A ship packed with African migrants sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Hundreds of people drowned, including children and pregnant women. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley begins her report with a reminder that this incident at sea was sadly, not anything new.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING OF RESCUE AT SEA)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In this footage from June, the Italian Coast Guard is rescuing frightened migrants from a creaky fishing boat on the high seas. But the migrants last week weren't so lucky. Hundreds drowned, and the death toll is rising as divers find more bodies this week. The migrants were fleeing poverty and war in Sudan and Somalia, brought across the Mediterranean from Libya by a Tunisian smuggler.

The accident shocked Europe. Yesterday, a delegation from the European Commission visited Lampedusa. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecelia Malmstrom was part of it.

CECELIA MALMSTROM: I also will never forget the sight of 280 coffins today. I will bear that with me for the rest of my life. We need to do everything we can, to prevent tragedies such as this one.

BEARDSLEY: Malmstrom is pushing for a powerful, Mediterranean-wide search and rescue force - from Cyprus to Spain - that can find and intercept the rickety migrant vessels in time to save lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRONTEX VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Border guards perform a crucial role in ever-more demanding circumstances.

BEARDSLEY: The latest accident has highlighted the E.U.'s underfunded border patrol agency called Frontex, touted here in a video on its website. Based in Warsaw, Frontex currently helps Italy intercept migrant boats but has limited resources. The Mediterranean countries which bear the brunt of the migrant onslaught from Africa have appealed to the E.U. for more money, but northern nations say they already do enough by taking in a large proportion of the migrants. Malmstrom is also pushing for tougher measures to fight smugglers, partnerships with migrants' home countries, and an increase in legal immigration quotas.

MALMSTROM: This restrictive approach has proven its limit. We need to move towards openness, solidarity, sharing of responsibility, and a true European response.

BEARDSLEY: Rainer Munz is a migration specialist with the Brussels-based Bruegel Institute. He says migrants crossing the Mediterranean are a fraction of the total entering Europe every year. But because the crossings often end in tragedy, they're visible and emotional. Munz says the new proposals could change things. He says officials are already focusing on how to save lives and not just seal off borders.

RAINER MUNZ: Nevertheless, it does not address the root causes why people are leaving Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, etc.

BEARDSLEY: To truly solve the problem, says Munz, migrants must be given hope back in their own countries.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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