BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The death of hundreds of African migrants in a shipwreck off Sicily has led to anguished calls for Europe-wide action to tackle mass migration, but divisions among EU states mean the bloc’s response is likely to fall short of expectations.
The European Union, under pressure to show it is responding to the disaster off Lampedusa that killed 297 people, many of them women and children, has promised 30 million euros in emergency cash for Italy and proposed expanding search and rescue patrols across the vast southern Mediterranean.
But history shows the 28-nation bloc has found it next to impossible to construct an effective strategy to deal with mass migration to Europe, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa.
“Tragedies like this one in Lampedusa occur every year in the Mediterranean and each time we see similar reactions from the political level of the EU - calls to strengthen solidarity and common action,” said Joanna Parkin, a researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies, a thinktank in Brussels.
“In practice it has always been very difficult to reach agreement on ways forward,” she told Reuters.
States on Europe’s southern flanks that are bearing the brunt of mass migration - most of those who died off Lampedusa were Eritreans who left from Libya - want other EU countries to share the burden, financially and with resettling migrants.
The frontline countries, including Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Spain and Italy, are the hardest hit by Europe’s financial crisis, leaving them with little muscle to combat the problem.
But with anti-immigration parties on the rise in Europe, northern European countries are reluctant to take steps that could increase immigration to their countries, or send the message to voters that they are not firm on migration.
In their defense, northern EU countries point to EU statistics showing that northerners - Germany, Sweden and Britain - granted protection to most asylum-seekers in 2012.
In a reflection of the frustration directed at Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was heckled as he visited Lampedusa to mourn the victims on Wednesday .
“The problem of one of our countries, Italy, must be perceived as a problem for all of us, for all of Europe,” Barroso told a news conference.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, sitting alongside him, said Italy would put migration at the center of its national and European agenda in coming years.
Despite the good intentions of the EU’s executive Commission, the problem Barroso will face is winning support from EU member states for concerted EU-wide action.
The EU set up a specialized agency, Frontex, in 2004 to coordinate EU border management but its role is limited.
Frontex currently coordinates patrols off the Italian coast, using boats, planes and helicopters lent by EU member states.
The boats and aircraft take part in search and rescue operations when migrant boats sink, and have helped save 16,000 people this year, Frontex spokesman Michal Parzyszek said.
In response to the Lampedusa tragedy, European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom proposed expanding Frontex’s role, calling for it to deploy a search-and-rescue operation spanning the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain.
EU governments will be asked to stump up cash to finance the operation and will be expected to provide the boats and aircraft required to carry it out. It is unclear how soon it might start operating, even if EU governments were to give the go-ahead.
Elizabeth Collett, director of the thinktank Migration Policy Institute Europe, said Malmstrom’s proposal was a short-term solution that did not address the deeper issues.
“In the medium term, they (the European Union) have to find a way to work together more effectively and also work with partners in the Mediterranean,” she said.
“(They need to) work with transit and sending countries and find way of deterring people from using the services of smugglers and putting themselves in extreme peril.”
Additional reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Luke Baker and Mark Heinrich