Mediterranean migrant deaths spur EU leaders to act

At emergency summit convened after 800 perished at sea, nations commit to triple resources for border patrol operation.

Malta ceremony
The emergency summit was held as 28 bodies out of 800 people who died in the Mediterranean were buried in the island nation of Malta [AP]

European Union leaders have committed extra ships, planes and helicopters to save lives in the Mediterranean at an emergency summit convened in Brussels after hundreds of migrants drowned in the space of a few days.

Meeting on Thursday, leaders from the 28-nation bloc also said they were discussing laying the ground for military action against traffickers.

Germany and France pledged two ships while Britain committed three to move into the Mediterranean, and other member states also lined up more vessels and helicopters that could be used to rescue migrants, officials said.

The member states also agreed to triple funding to $9.7m a month for the EU’s border operation that patrols the Mediterranean. 

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Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from Brussels, said that while the Triton border-control operation can rescue people, its main purpose is to stop people getting to Europe.

“The message coming out loud and clear from the EU was that the priority was to stop people getting on the boats in the first place,” our correspondent said, adding that French President Francois Hollande had committed to going to the UN to seek approval to attack smugglers’ boats on the Libyan coast.

Human rights organisations expressed their disappointment in the EU’s announcement.

Amnesty International said that Triton’s operational area must be extended to the “high seas” where most of the migrant deaths occur.

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“What we witnessed today in Brussels was a face-saving not a life-saving operation,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s Director for Europe and Central Asia.

Migrants buried in Malta

The emergency summit came as victims of the Mediterranean’s worst-ever migrant disaster were buried in the island nation of Malta on Thursday.

Two dozen caskets containing the only bodies recovered from the weekend capsizing that left an estimated 800 dead were laid out for a memorial service on the grounds of the country’s main hospital.

None of the bodies was identified. One casket had “No 132” scrawled on it, referring to the number of the DNA sample taken from the corpse in case a relative ever comes to claim it.

The bodies were later buried at the island nation’s largest cemetery.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, said the UK would contribute the navy’s flagship, HMS Bulwark , along with three helicopters and two border patrol ships to the EU effort.

“As the country in Europe with the biggest defence budget we can make a real contribution,” he said, but added that this would not include accepting a share of the refugees.

German army sources told the DPA news agency Berlin would offer to send the troop supply ship Berlin as well as frigates Karlsruhe and Hessen toward Italy, reported the AP news agency.

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The ships currently participate in the anti-piracy operation Atalanta at the Horn of Africa and could be in the Mediterranean within five days.

Belgium and Ireland each said they stood ready to commit a navy ship.

Africa appeal

The task ahead is huge, with more than 10,000 migrants plucked from seas between Italy and Libya just over the last week, fleeing poverty and conflict.

For several years, EU leaders have done little more than deplore the rising death toll and mark tragedies with moments of silence and wreaths instead of fundamental action.

When Libya disintegrated politically after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Europe failed to take forceful action.

“Right now it’s a question of fixing yesterday’s errors,” said French President Francois Hollande.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte insisted that Europe should not take the brunt of blame.

“We also ask that Africa, the source of the problem, also collectively takes up its responsibility,” Rutte said. “Last time I checked Libya was in Africa, not Europe.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies