EU leaders hold crisis summit in bid to save thousands of migrants' lives
EU leaders will hold a crisis summit today in an attempt to end the human trafficking tragedy threatening thousands of lives.
It is understood that they will sign off on a series of measures to ramp up search and rescue operations and step up measures to crack down on the traffickers.
The summit was called following a wave of outrage over the death of up to 950 migrants last Sunday and the news that 1,700 have already died this year, and that the toll could be more than 30,00 by the end of the year should the current rate of deaths continue unchecked.
Sunday's disaster off Libya has led EU governments to reverse last year's decision to scale down search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
The leaders are expected to agree in Brussels on reinforcing EU operations in the Mediterranean, probably by doubling the cash and equipment available to two EU border patrol missions, a senior EU diplomat said.
Their area of operations will also be extended, meaning EU ships would be better placed to spot and rescue migrant boats in trouble off the North African coast.
"Our overriding priority is to prevent more people from dying at sea," European Council President Donald Tusk said in his invitation letter to the leaders.
Brussels has struggled for years to forge an effective joint strategy to handle migrants fleeing war and turmoil in Africa and the Middle East, despite repeated tragedies at sea.
"The stakes are very high. EU heads of state have the responsibility of the region's human rights credibility on their shoulders and they need to take firm action to save lives," Iverna McGowan, head of rights group Amnesty International's Brussels office, told a news conference.
Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi whose country has borne the brunt of caring for thousands of desperate migrants, said last night that the EU must take a collective stand to tackle human trafficking at source in African countries.
Last year Italy closed a sea rescue mission that had saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants, despite warnings from activists at the time that this would mean more deaths. The mission was replaced with a far smaller EU scheme whose main focus was to patrol the bloc's borders.
Some EU countries, including Germany and Britain, were worried that the search and rescue mission would encourage more migrants to take to sea in rickety boats.
One of the proposals the European Commission will submit envisages a military and civilian mission to capture and destroy the traffickers' boats.
"We know where the boats are, where the smugglers gather together the people who are fleeing," Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said yesterday.
The leaders will also discuss a pilot project to resettle 5,000 to 10,000 refugees from Mediterranean countries to other EU states, the senior diplomat said.
Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, head of the African Union Commission, said in Brussels that African nations must increase jobs and educational opportunities to discourage young Africans from leaving for Europe. Meanwhile in Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has condemned what he said were proposals to sink human traffickers' vessels, insisting the plans would leave migrants "to their deaths."
Mr Erdogan, speaking at a joint news conference with visiting Iraqi President Fuad Masum, suggested the European plans could pave the way for ships being sunk while carrying migrants.
He didn't specify how, but spoke of "statements coming from Europe preparing the ground for (vessels) to be sunk in the Mediterranean, in the Aegean, while transporting migrants and refugees."
Mr Erdogan has increased his anti-West and anti-European rhetoric in recent years. His latest comments follow a decision at the European Parliament to pass a non-binding resolution to commemorate "the centenary of the Armenian genocide" later this week.
Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as genocide. Turkey, however, insists that the toll has been inflated. Mr Erdogan also criticised European countries' efforts to stop migrants reaching their borders, saying Turkey was currently hosting 1.7 million refugees from Syria and another 300,000 from Iraq.