EU holds crisis talks over Mediterranean migrant deaths

EUROPEAN Union (EU) foreign ministers promised yesterday to do more to stop migrant deaths in the Mediterranean by increasing rescues and catching traffickers, following a weekend tragedy that killed up to 700 people off the Libyan coast.

Many European governments have long been reluctant to fund rescue operations in the Mediterranean for fear of encouraging more people to make the crossing in search of a better life in Europe, but they now face outrage over the refugee deaths.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was "appalled" by the migrant shipwreck disaster, her spokesman said yesterday. Sunday's incident could be the deadliest Mediterranean migrant disaster yet.

"It is clear to everyone in the German government that something must be done to prevent further accidents, to prevent mass deaths in the Mediterranean," said the spokesman. "We now have to move very quickly to agree on the appropriate measures."

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said that "what's at stake is the reputation of the European Union".

Speaking to reporters as he arrived for a meeting with EU peers in Luxembourg, he added: "We can't have a European emergency and an Italian answer."

The foreign ministers held a minute of silence at the start of their meeting and were to be joined by interior ministers later for an emergency discussion of the migration crisis.

Northern European Union countries have so far largely left rescue operations to southern states such as Italy. In the week prior to the weekend's tragedy, the Italian coast guard rescued almost 8,000 migrants in the Mediterranean, according to the European Commission, the EU's executive body.

At least 3,500 people, many of them fleeing poverty and fighting in Africa, died trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe last year, said the United Nations.

Solutions aired by ministers on their way to the Luxembourg conference centre included a call by Britain to crack down on smugglers in North Africa who charge thousands of dollars to load people onto rubber dinghies and fishing boats.

Austria said it supported an Italian proposal to set up camps in the Middle East and Africa where people can request asylum on site, without having to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

France's Europe Minister Harlem Desir said the EU's Triton border protection operation, which replaced a more comprehensive Italian search-and-rescue operation dubbed Mare Nostrum last year, was not enough and its scope too limited.

The Triton monthly budget is 2.9 million euros (S$4.2 million), a third of Mare Nostrum's.

Italy wants Egypt and Tunisia to play a role in rescuing stricken migrant vessels in the Mediterranean. Once the migrants are rescued by the Egyptians or the Tunisians, they could be taken to North African ports.

Meanwhile, the International Organisation for Migration said yesterday it had received a distress call from a sinking boat in the Mediterranean carrying more than 300 people, with at least 20 people reported dead.