Mediterranean Tragedy E.U. Pledges More Help for Libya

According to unconfirmed reports, 400 refugees are feared to have drowned in the latest Mediterranean maritime disaster. In response, E.U. foreign ministers plan to boost the bloc's naval and civilian missions to Libya.
More refugees are expected to undertake risky sea crossings as the weather improves.

It was a thoroughly predictable tragedy. As many as 400 refugees, mostly from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean en route to Europe. Their four inflatable boats capsized in heavy seas, according to media reports. Only around 30 people could be saved.

“Exactly one year after the Lampedusa tragedy, we seem to have another tragedy on our hands,” said the Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni in Luxembourg on Monday. The disaster is thought to have taken place off the Egyptian coast and within its territorial waters. Mr. Gentiloni said he was waiting for detailed information from the Egyptian authorities.

In recent days, controversy has flared as Austria prepares to re-introduce border controls at its frontier with Italy. Perhaps with this debate in mind, Mr. Gentiloni said: “The tragedy is another reason why we must say to Europe that walls should not be built. Instead, we must to bring our combined strength to solve this crisis.”

History seems to be repeating itself. Exactly one year ago, on April 18, 2015, a refugee boat sank off the coast of Libya, killing around 800 people. On Monday evening, Italian naval vessels were heading to the scene of the latest disaster, hoping to retrieve that boat and identify any bodies it may contain.

The tragedy is another reason why we must bring our combined strength to solve this crisis. Paolo Gentiloni, Italian Foreign Minister

The 2015 sinking was Mediterranean’s worst refugee catastrophe to date. In its aftermath, a specially-organized summit of the European Union agreed to strengthen the maritime rescue operations of Frontex, the E.U.’s border security agency. It also announced an intensified campaign against people smuggling. The latest tragedy could have similar political consequences.

“The disaster shows that the refugee crisis has lost none of its urgency and needs our continued attention in the coming months,” said Stephan Mayer, German parliamentary internal affairs spokesman for the center-right Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union. Even after the closing of the overland Balkan refugee route and the deal with Turkey to take back non-Syrian refugees, the E.U. will not be able to shrug off the ongoing problem of refugee and migrant traffic.

The coming summer could bring many more deaths. In the last few weeks, after the closure of the Balkan route, improved weather in the Mediterranean has brought an increase in migrants attempting the sea route from North Africa. Every day, the Italian coastguard, along with Frontex, rescues hundreds of migrants from badly-equipped inflatable boats. Another maritime disaster was simply a matter of time.

New Routes-01

On Monday, Frontex released figures confirming the re-emergence of the maritime route. In March, 26,450 people landed on the Greek islands, half the total of the previous month. But in the same period, some 9,600 refugees landed in Italy, double the total seen in February.

This was apparently the first time, however, that a boat had set off from the coast of Egypt, rather than Libya. According to experts, this suggests smugglers transporting refugees into Europe are attempting new and often dangerous routes. Until now, sea routes been dominated by migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. But there are now reports of Syrian and Iraqi refugees flying to North Africa in order to attempt the sea crossing.

The European Commission has expressed agreement with an Italian proposal for a common migration plan to cope with the refugee crisis and its causes, to be financed by an issue of euro bonds.

The government sees no basis for common debt-financing of member states’ expenditures on migration. Steffen Seibert, German government spokesman

However, the German government firmly rejects the plan. “The government sees no basis for common debt-financing of member states’ expenditures on migration,” said government spokesman Steffen Seibert. Berlin’s rejection of this use of euro bonds was well-known, he said, adding that the regular E.U. budget and other existing instruments were sufficient.

In a meeting in Luxembourg, E.U. foreign and defense ministers discussed an extension of the bloc’s operations in Libya. In the wake of the latest tragedy, such an extension would aim to extend E.U. naval operations to Libyan territorial waters, known as Operation Sophia, in order to better combat people-smuggling operations, suggested sources in Brussels.

Additionally, a civilian mission was planned, intended to improve Libyan border security and bolster the fight against terrorism. The foreign ministers discussed the possible agreement in a video conference with Fayez Sarraj, the head of the new Libyan Government of National Accord, which is backed by the United Nations. Mr. Sarraj and his proposed ministers only arrived in Tripoli by ship on March 30, and are trying to bring under their control a country that has been divided among rival militias since the ouster of former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.  A scheduled vote by the Libyan parliament on approving the new UN-backed government failed to take place on Monday.

The international community is hoping that the new administration can provide some degree of stability in the country. On Saturday the French and German foreign ministers made an unannounced visit to Tripoli to show their backing for Mr. Sarraj and his administration.

"We are ready to support the government," said E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who chaired Monday's meeting of more than 50 ministers. "Work can now start," she told a news conference.

The latest refugee tragedy will likely spur debate on other, more far-reaching measures, which have already caused considerable controversy between E.U. member states. The European Commission is pressing to expand legal channels of migration into Europe, as well as the introduction of mandatory distribution of asylum-seekers among member states. These have met with fierce opposition, above all from Eastern European states. Bohuslav Sobotka, the Czech prime minister, yesterday again emphasized that his country would not be forced by the E.U. to accept refugees.


Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt's foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. Thomas Ludwig is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Brussels. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].