The European Union is set to agree on a plan to return 150,000 migrants who arrived in the continent illegally in 2014, according to a draft statement published Thursday ahead of an emergency summit in Brussels.
According to the statement, only 5,000 migrants qualifying for refugee status will be resettled as part of “voluntary pilot project” across Europe, while the remaining migrants - including those who have survived the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean to Europe since the beginning of this year - will be sent back by the EU’s border agency, Frontex.
While promising to increase “emergency aid to frontline member states,” the statement says the EU will consider options for organising “emergency relocation between member states.”
This support will extend to Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Mali and Niger and involve helping them control their land borders in order to limit the movement of potential migrants towards the northern African coastline, the Guardian reported.
Southern European countries Italy, Malta and Greece in particular have been the hardest hit by the sudden influx of migrants to the continent in recent years, and have long called on richer central and northern European countries for more support in dealing with the crisis.
The increase in migrants daring to risk their lives to sail across the Mediterranean in rickety boats belonging to human traffickers, many of whom abandon the migrants in the middle of the sea, is largely due to the recent increase in conflicts in Africa and the Middle-East.
The EU has been under pressure to deal with the crisis, especially after over 900 migrants drowned off the coast of Italy when their boat capsized over the weekend, the latest of such tragedies which have claimed the lives of thousands in similar circumstances.
Such incidents have become almost daily occurrences in the Mediterranean, with the weekend’s death toll taking the number of migrants killed while crossing the sea up to around 1,800 since the beginning of this year.
The Italian coast guard rescued a further 220 migrants travelling from Libya on rubber boats Wednesday, while another thousand migrants made it as far as Naples and Sicily.
Of the 36,000 who have made it across the sea this year, around 21,000 have entered the continent via Italy. The Italian government believes a further 200,000 more people will attempt illegal crossings by the year’s end.
Despite the humanitarian crisis, the draft summit reveals plans to expand search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean are likely to be thrown out in favour of doubling funds for the current border-surveillance operations Triton and Poseidon, which according to the Frontex mandate only allow patrols within 30 miles of the Italian coast.
EU foreign and interior ministers proposed the plan to financially reinforce the operations Monday, while Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri said on Wednesday the Triton operation should be expanded beyond its primarily purposes of search and rescue.
“Triton cannot be a search-and-rescue operation. I mean, in our operational plan, we cannot have provisions for proactive search-and-rescue action. This is not in Frontex’s mandate, and this is, in my understanding, not in the mandate of the European Union,” Leggeri said.
Instead of setting up measures to help migrants stranded at sea, it is expected that EU leaders will declare war on people traffickers, who they see as the root cause of the problem, by undertaking “systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers.”
“Our immediate priority is to prevent more people dying at sea. We have therefore decided to strengthen our presence at sea, to fight the traffickers, to prevent illegal migration flows and to reinforce internal solidarity,” the statement says.
Italian Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti had earlier said military action against the traffickers was among the options being considered.
"We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather. The plans for military intervention are there," Pinotti said.
"We think it's the moment in which Europe decides, forcefully, to have an international police operation, which will undo this band of criminals."
The statement also calls on the EU to push to re-establish a functional government in Libya, from which many of the migrants have been departing since former autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed during uprisings in 2011.
Failure to re-establish a united government in the north African country has allowed traffickers transporting migrants, particularly from Sub-Saharan Africa and war-torn Syria, to exploit the lack of authority.
However, Libya’s General National Council (GNC) Foreign Minister Muhammed el Ghirani urged the EU on Thursday to not adopt action proposing to conduct air strikes on suspected human traffickers, adding that Tripoli’s forces would “confront” unilateral air strikes.
“You cannot just decide to hit. Let’s say you strike a particular site. How will you know that you did not hit an innocent person, a fisherman? Does Europe have pinpoint accuracy? So we are saying, ‘Let’s do this together,’” Ghirani said in an interview with the Times of Malta.
Following the recent tragedy, Tripoli announced that the Libyan coast guard captured 600 more migrants crammed into several rag-tag vessels attempting to leave the country.
EU leaders called for the emergency summit after over 50 European politicians and businessmen signed a petition calling the latest Mediterranean tragedy a “stain on the conscience of our continent.” The joint letter also demands the expansion of search-and-rescue operations “with a mandate and level of funding that match the humanitarian emergency that confronts us.”
Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen, however, has criticised the plans to send back the vast majority of migrants, calling it “totally inadequate.”
“The whole point of this summit is to respond to the crisis. There are no search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean at the moment, so for the communique to talk about providing support for 5,000 individuals simply misses the point,” Allen told The Independent.
“Europe is talking about taking 5,000 people while we are seeing people drowning.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also slammed the EU’s approach to the problem, claiming the EU was leaving migrants "to their deaths."
On Thursday, a multi-faith service was held for the migrants who died over the weekend at Malta's Mater Dei hospital, which was also attended by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
Only 28 people survived Sunday’s disaster, with only 24 bodies retrieved from the sea so far. Many of the migrants were locked in the lower deck when the vessel sank.
According to testimony from survivors, the accident was caused when a search-and-rescue ship rammed into the migrant boat.
Much anticipated response from EU
After close to 900 deaths, the European Leaders finally agreed to increase naval search aid in the Mediterranean and triple funds.
Soaring death tolls forced EU leaders to hold an emergency meeting in Brussels to prevent more people from dying at sea.
Upon meeting, leaders announced that they will triple funding to 9 million euros ($9.7 million) for patrolling the Mediterranean border. In addition, a larger supply of vessels and aircrafts will be provided by EU leaders.
"Leaders have already pledged significantly greater support, including many more vessels, aircraft and experts," EU President Donald Tusk said.
However, critics remain still skeptical about decision stating that it will only attract more migrants.