Italian authorities held the captain of the vessel that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea causing the deaths of hundreds of refugees, as European Union governments pledged a crackdown on human trafficking.
The arrests of the skipper and another crew member followed the weekend disaster in which hundreds fleeing through conflict-wracked Libya were feared drowned. That prompted EU leaders to call a summit Thursday to speed up a 10-point migration- management plan that was due to be unveiled in May.
Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said in a Twitter posting that "two people smugglers" had been arrested by the prosecutor’s office in Catania, Sicily, which has started a probe into the sinking.
Battles over funding and burden-sharing look set to unfold at the summit in Brussels, as economically stretched southern European countries complain of being overwhelmed with migrants while northern governments contend with a backlash against letting in more foreigners.
"I do not expect any quick-fix solutions to the root causes of migration because there are none," EU President Donald Tusk said Monday in a video announcing the summit. "But I do expect," he went on, that the meeting will weigh "options for immediate action."
Turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa swelled the number of applicants for asylum in the 28-nation EU by 44 percent to 626,065 in 2014, the most since 1992 when Yugoslavia was breaking apart, according to EU data. Some 122,790 people fleeing Syria’s civil war found their way across the Mediterranean.
More than 35,000 asylum seekers and migrants have hazarded the journey to southern Europe so far this year, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The weekend tragedy, if the numbers are confirmed, would bring the death toll to about 1,600 in 2015, compared with 3,500 in 2014, the office said in a statement.
In the latest incident, survivors said that more than 900 people were on board when the vessel left the Libyan port of Zuara. A Maltese military official, who asked not to be identified, said the boat capsized about 61 nautical miles, or 113 kilometers, north of Libya.
"The control of the sea is a very serious issue and can’t be dealt with simply by playing hide-and-seek with the people smugglers, the sea slave-holders," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told reporters in Rome.
Southern European countries have long complained that the EU’s border-management agency, Frontex, is understaffed and underfunded. It was set up to coordinate national border-control agencies, not to manage military-style operations.
Seven naval vessels, two planes and one helicopter are monitoring the waters off Italy as part of an EU-flagged "Triton" mission with a monthly budget of 2.9 million euros. From its launch in November to early April, the mission rescued nearly 8,000 refugees, according to Frontex.
EU governments will beef up Triton and another mission, Poseidon, that monitors Greece’s land and sea borders. Both will get more funding and wider areas to patrol, Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters in Luxembourg without giving figures.
Other elements of the 10-point plan, hastily unveiled Monday at a meeting of foreign and interior ministers in Luxembourg, include the dispatch of EU teams to process asylum seekers in Greece and Italy, and an EU-wide pilot project to distribute refugees across the bloc. Migrants will also be fingerprinted and more pro-active steps taken to send them back home.
"We have to come to a more just distribution of the refugees in Europe," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Germany is willing to provide extra help for Italy and Greece, where refugee ships make landfall.
The elimination of passport checks between most EU countries has enabled refugees to roam the continent in search of the most receptive government, stirring social tensions. Germany registered the most asylum bids, 202,645, though on a per capita basis that title went to Sweden with 81,180.
Immigration has fed the growth of anti-foreigner parties in societies that view themselves as tolerant, such as Denmark and the Netherlands. It has also sparked arguments over which country is carrying the heaviest burden in sheltering the new arrivals.
Proposals to step up the fight against criminal organizations that cram refugees into ramshackle ships went over well with the northern European governments that are coping with anti-immigration sentiment.
With the U.K. Conservatives fending off an anti-foreigner party in a bid to retain power in next month’s election, Home Secretary Theresa May said: "Our focus must be fairly and squarely on dealing with the callous criminals who lie behind this vile trade in human beings."
Thursday’s summit will also consider the feasibility of destroying ships used by human traffickers to transport refugees — a controversial step for governments wary of military combat with the armed gangs and factions that are tearing apart Libya.
© Copyright 2023 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.