LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - EU foreign ministers promised on Monday to do more to stop migrant deaths in the Mediterranean by increasing rescues and catching traffickers, stung by a weekend tragedy that killed up to 700 people off the Libyan coast.
Many European governments have long been reluctant to fund rescue operations in the Mediterranean for fear of encouraging more people to make the crossing in search of a better life in Europe, but they now face outrage over the refugee deaths.
“What’s at stake is the reputation of the European Union,” Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told reporters as he arrived for a meeting with EU peers in Luxembourg.
“We can’t have a European emergency and an Italian answer.”
The foreign ministers held a minute of silence at the start of their meeting and are being joined by interior ministers later for an emergency discussion of the migration crisis.
Northern European Union countries have so far largely left rescue operations to southern states such as Italy. In the week prior to the weekend’s tragedy, the Italian coast guard rescued almost 8,000 migrants in the Mediterranean, according to the European Commission, the EU’s executive.
At least 3,500 people, many of them fleeing poverty and fighting in Africa, died trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in 2014, according to the United Nations.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, also an Italian, said she was determined to build a “common sense of responsibility” to tackle the crisis and that EU leaders are considering an emergency summit in Brussels this week.
It was the European Union’s “moral duty to concentrate our responsibility as Europeans to prevent these kind of tragedies from happening again and again,” Mogherini said.
“We must build a common sense of European responsibility ... knowing that there is no easy solution, no magic solution.”
Solutions aired by ministers on their way into the Luxembourg conference center included a call by Britain to crack down on smugglers in North Africa who charge thousands of dollars to load people onto rubber dinghies and fishing boats.
Austria said it supported an Italian proposal to set up camps in the Middle East and Africa where people can request asylum on site without having to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe.
France’s Europe Minister Harlem Desir said the EU’s Triton border protection operation, which replaced a more comprehensive Italian search-and-rescue operation dubbed Mare Nostrum last year, was not enough and its scope was too limited.
Triton was launched in November last year with seven boats, two planes and one helicopter - much smaller than Mare Nostrum, which had far greater air and sea rescue capabilities, using radar, aircraft and drones. The Triton monthly budget is 2.9 million euros ($3.12 million), a third of Mare Nostrum’s.
“We need resources, much more substantial resources for this operation of border control, border surveillance and ... when necessary to help for people who are threatened with being shipwrecked,” Desir said.
Italy wants Egypt and Tunisia to play a role in rescuing stricken migrant vessels in the Mediterranean. Once the migrants are taken out of the sea by the Egyptians or the Tunisians, they could be taken to North African ports.
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Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier and Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Sophie Walker