An interfaith ceremony was held in Malta Thursday to bury 24 unidentified victims of the Mediterranean’s worst migrant boat accident ever recorded. The men died, alongside an estimated 800 others, when a fishing trawler carrying migrants destined for Europe capsized off the coast of Libya Sunday. Religious leaders attending the funeral called for a more humane approach to the migrant crisis, which has left 1,750 people dead so far this year. Meanwhile, the EU has called an emergency summit on the issue in Brussels, and their response to the crisis should be finalized during Thursday’s discussions.
Imam Mohamed El Sadi, the Muslim leader of Malta, led the prayers at Thursday’s funeral. “Help our leaders to do justice to support the oppressed and stop the oppressors,” he said. “Guide us to help the needy and show solidarity with the refugees.” Echoing these sentiments, the bishop of Gozo, Mario Grech, said: “We pray that you help us promote laws that protect the rights and dignity of everyone, especially the most vulnerable. God of justice, your love transcends our limitations and our unfair rules that discriminate human beings and divide humankind.”
Whether the EU hears these prayers and devises a humanitarian and effective action plan remains to be seen. The union has come under fire, following the latest wave of deaths, for drastically reducing their rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. The extensive Mare Nostrum search and rescue venture was replaced with Triton, a much less ambitious border control system, last year. The number of migrant deaths has since risen exponentially, with the current death toll standing at more than 30 times 2014’s equivalent figure.
The emergency summit held in Brussels on Thursday aims to come up with a plan to stem the flow of migrants attempting the hazardous crossing and reduce the number of deaths. A draft statement obtained by the Associated Press suggests that the proposed measures would commit the EU's 28 member-nations to “increase search and rescue possibilities” and to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers.”
The statement suggests that any plan will likely have a military edge, and see EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini immediately embarking on a preventative operation. Attending the funeral in Malta, the EU’s top migration official Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “We will take action now. Europe is declaring war on smugglers.”
But the U.N. has urged that, rather than simply attack the smugglers with a renewed emphasis on law enforcement, the EU should place the protection of migrants at the center of their proposal. “We need to make sure that the asylum component and the protection of people component is one that is prioritized within these measures,” Volker Türk, assistant U.N. High Commissioner for protection, told a Geneva news briefing earlier in the week.
Instead, the EU’s current draft indicates that most migrants who survive the journey to Italy will be sent back to their home countries, according to The Guardian. The statement, outlining the crisis package, stipulates that only 5,000 resettlement places in Europe will be made available. Last year, 150,000 migrants reached Italy. In the first months of 2015, more than 36,000 migrants have reached Malta, Italy and Greece. The draft’s proposed “rapid-return program” would repatriate the vast majority of these people as irregular migrants.
The Guardian also reports that any newly concocted, rapid expansion of the Mediterranean search and rescue operation is unlikely. On Monday, EU foreign and interior ministers had already decided to double the current funding of Triton in 2015 and 2016. But the operation will seemingly continue to operate within its current mandate: a patrol-range that only reaches 30 miles off the Italian coast. On Wednesday, Fabrice Leggeri, the head of Frontex — the EU’s border control agency — said that Triton should not focus first and foremost on 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,” Leggeri told The Guardian. “This is not in Frontex’s mandate, and this is in my understanding not in the mandate of the European Union.” Such comments suggest that the hopes of both the EU and the religious leaders at Thursday’s funeral for a more humane policy may well be dashed.
BBC News reports that the sociopolitical contexts out of which the migrants emerge, or “push” factors, will also be high on the agenda Thursday: Libya (where 90 percent of Italy’s incoming migrants launch off from) and ISIS (operating nearby) will both be discussed. Germany has proposed a plan to settle migrants more equally throughout the EU, with Angela Merkel decrying the deaths as “incompatible with EU values.” This redistribution plan will no doubt cause contention at the summit, as anti-immigration parties gain ground across the continent.
By the end of Thursday, no doubt after much debate, a document stipulating the agreed-upon crisis package will emerge. Let's just hope it makes a difference.
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