European leaders have pledged to triple funding of EU maritime operations in the Mediterranean in an attempt to get to grips with the epidemic of migrant drownings at sea, while 15 of 28 EU countries also promised more naval assets for the mission.
At an emergency summit in Brussels staged under intense pressure to respond more humanely to the soaring death toll, Britain was the first to pledge ships and helicopters.
The Royal Navy flagship HMS Bulwark was ordered to Malta to join search-and-rescue operations after the deaths of up to 800 people last weekend in the worst single tragedy in two years in the Mediterranean.
David Cameron also said two smaller cutters or patrol vessels would be sent as well as three Merlin helicopters fitted with advanced radar systems capable of spotting small craft at sea from a range of 100 miles.
offered one frigate and 10 ships while France was said to have committed a plane for a fortnight in September and a patrol boat for the month of November.
Despite previous British government opposition to saving lives at sea, Cameron’s U-turn on search and rescue came with conditions attached. He said any migrants picked up at sea would not necessarily qualify for claiming asylum in Britain, but would be taken to the nearest EU country, probably . Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, was said not to have objected when he met Cameron just before the summit.
The Bulwark, currently taking part in first world war commemorations at Gallipoli in Turkey, is expected to be operational on search-and-rescue duties in the Mediterranean in around a week and will be based at Malta, UK government sources said.
While leaders stressed that the paramount aim was to save lives, Thursday’s summit focused mainly on security in what looked like a vain attempt to stem the flow of refugees from north .
“Our immediate priority is to prevent more people from dying at sea,” said a summit statement.
Refugee charities and immigration professionals, highly critical of the EU effort before the summit, were guardedly hopeful.
“The commitment to triple the budget and national offers of significant new search and rescue capacity are critical breakthroughs,” said Save the Children. “Europe took a small step back from the moral abyss today, but it needs to do much more to provide clarity and turn this momentum into lives saved at sea.”
The summit was called at short notice in reaction to the deaths of an estimated 800 migrants off the coast of Libya last weekend, drowned when their fishing trawler capsized in the biggest single tragedy in two years of attempts to flee sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East for southern .
The leaders decided for the first time to draw up military plans to hit people-smuggling networks in and destroy the vessels used to send the migrants on their perilous voyages.
“We commit to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers,” the leaders said.
Senior EU officials refused to be drawn on the details, and diplomats said the plans were sketchy and imprecise, hastily announced in a kneejerk response to last weekend’s tragedy.
Apache helicopter gunships attacking traffickers’ vessels from a range of up to 2km would be the optimal way to operate, diplomatic sources said, arguing against “boots on the ground.”
Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign and security policy coordinator, was charged with drawing up a military mission blueprint. Diplomats said this could take several months and even up to a year. Military action would also probably require a UN security council mandate and would probably run into a Russian veto.
There was widespread concern among immigration professionals that the proposals on offer would have little immediate effect on rescuing migrants at a time when the death toll is soaring. According to the UN and the International Organisation for , 1,776 people are dead or missing so far this year, compared to 56 for the same period last year.
While three times as much money and ample naval, air and personnel assets were pledged for the EU’s Triton maritime mission which patrols Italy’s territorial waters, the head of the EU’s border agency in charge of the operation promised by member states when the operation started last November.
The maritime operation is run by the EU’s Warsaw-based borders agency, Frontex, which has a shoestring budget and no military assets. Its mandate is to monitor the external borders of the EU’s Schengen free-travel zone, not to save people in distress. There was no proposal to change the mandate although Triton is also saving migrants at risk.
The leaders of the four biggest EU countries – Germany, , Britain and Italy – met before the summit to consider their options.
Cameron has performed a U-turn in recent days, agreeing to the need for more extensive search-and-rescue operations after the government strongly criticised Italian rescue efforts last year and refused to take part in the Triton mission on the grounds that saving lives just encouraged a greater flow of migrants and emboldened the people-smugglers.
UK government officials now admit that Triton has not worked. Germany, France and the Netherlands were similarly critical of the Italian operations last year which were called off and replaced by the much less ambitious and cheaper Triton mission. Thursday night’s decisions put Triton on a similar footing to the previous Italian Mare Nostrum operation.
The argument that Mare Nostrum served as a “pull factor” has not been vindicated. According to Frontex, in the first three months after Triton replaced Mare Nostrum, the flow of migrants increased 160%.
“Reluctant governments should realise that overemphasising the ‘pull effect’ is not only factually incorrect but also morally indefensible,” said the Centre for European Reform thinktank on Thursday.
Other “fortress Europe” measures decided included demands that the frontline states of Italy, Malta, and Greece fingerprint every person who arrives across the Mediterranean, that quicker repatriation be organised for “irregulars” who fail to qualify for asylum, and that the EU establish offices in the countries neighbouring Libya to gather intelligence on and try to stem the flow of migrants.
The heads of the UN refugee agency and human rights commission and of the International Organisation for Migration denounced the summit in advance as grossly inadequate given the scale of the crisis.
“A tragedy of epic proportions is unfolding in the Mediterranean,” they said. “The EU response needs to go beyond the present minimalist approach which focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on its shores. Enforcement alone will not solve the issue of irregular migration, but could increase the risks and abuse faced by migrants and refugees.”
Diplomats and officials admitted the package of proposals had been cobbled together in a hurry by the European commission as a result of the public clamour for action after last weekend’s drownings and that putting any agreements into effect would take several months at least.
But in the short term it appeared that maritime patrols in the Mediterranean and search-and-rescue missions would be beefed up considerably.