LUXEMBOURG -  The EU’s executive Tuesday pushed for extra resources to launch Mediterranean-wide search and rescue patrols after the Lampedusa tragedy as Europe struggles to cope with the flood of refugees knocking on its doors.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem went into talks with the bloc’s home affairs ministers saying she would propose “a big Frontex operation right across the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain for a big search and rescue operation”.“I’m going to ask for the backing and the resources needed to do this, to save more lives,” Malmstroem said.
The shipwreck off Lampedusa last week, in which more than 300 African asylum-seekers are feared dead, has put the divisive question of migration back on the front page of the EU’s political agenda.
Earlier Tuesday, 400 people claiming to be Syrian and Palestinian refugees were saved off the Italian coast by a Danish and a Panamanian vessel when their boats ran into trouble.
Frontex is the European Union agency in charge of policing the 28-nation bloc’s borders against illegal migration.
Malmstroem, who will visit the site of the Lampedusa disaster Wednesday with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, will ask the ministers to beef up cash contributions to Frontex and loan it ships and aircraft.
Set up in 2004 to coordinate and improve border management and stage joint operations, the Warsaw-based agency has seen its budget fall over the past three years and relies on the goodwill of member states for other equipment.
“This is a great concrete signal” of support, said Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano. “We are asking for Europe to lend us a hand to save lives.”
“Lampedusa is also a border of the EU .”
Italy complains that Europe’s battered southern economies — Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Spain — are left to cope with the refugees washing up on their shores or slipping across the porous border with Turkey.
Rome, which says 30,000 migrants have arrived so far this year, or four times more than usual, wants wealthier northern Europe to share the burden and for migration to be put on the agenda of a summit in Brussels at the end of the month.
Malmstroem agreed on the need for more burden-sharing, saying there were six to seven nations who take all the responsibility “and we are 28 member states”.
But ministers from Denmark, Germany and Sweden firmly denied their governments were turning their backs on people seeking asylum from political torment or economic misery.
Germany was Europe’s most generous nation towards asylum-seekers, said Home Affairs Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich. It took in nearly 950 refugees per million inhabitants compared to Italy’s almost 260 refugees per million inhabitants.
Last year, 70 percent of the 330,000 asylum-seekers in Europe were registered in five EU nations — Germany with 77,500, France 60,600, Sweden 44,000, Britain 28,000 and Belgium also with 28,000.
Many of these people arrive by plane, often with tourist visas, or by land.
Austria’s Internal Affairs Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner agreed that there must be more burden sharing. “All the countries with low asylum quotas must take action,” she said.
As the ministers met, divers brought up more bodies off Lampedusa as they resumed the gruelling search for the more than 200 still missing after their ship sank with 500 Eritrean and Somalian refugees on board.
Rescuers pulled 155 people from the sea and so far 235 bodies have been found. The final death toll is expected to be between 300 and 360.
Italian judicial authorities meanwhile issued an arrest warrant against Tunisian Kaled Bensalam, the captain of the sunken ship who is facing charges of trafficking, manslaughter and aiding illegal migration.
On Wednesday, the Vatican will hold a mass for the Lampedusa victims, attended by the bishops of Eritrea and Ethiopia as many of the victims were Eritrean Catholics.
Frontex is reported to have saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean over the last two years. Due to crisis-era belt-tightening its budget has slipped from 118 million euros ($160 million) in 2011 to 90 million in 2012 and 85 million this year.