9 Oct 2013

EU ministers seek way to avert more tragedies

9:43 pm on 9 October 2013

European Union ministers have been discussing the growing number of refugees arriving in Europe, after the deaths of nearly 300 African migrants whose boat sank off the Italian coast last week.

The European Commission has called for the EU to launch Mediterranean-wide search and rescue patrols to intercept migrant boats.

The move by Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem was prompted by the deaths of nearly 300 migrants whose boat sank off Italy's Lampedusa island.

The EU already has ships patrolling the area, but it is considering extending the mission, and establishing a better surveillance system to find vessels in trouble.

The Italian authorities say they have detained the captain of the ship that sank near the island of Lampedusa.

The Tunisian man was identified by survivors from the shipwreck, and is being investigated for multiple homicide.

Ms Malmstroem told reporters after the meeting she had asked ministers from the 28 member states to allow a major operation by the EU's Frontex border agency "covering the whole Mediterranean, from Cyprus to Spain".

First reactions from EU member states were encouraging, she said.

"We will ask Frontex to make a concrete proposal and come back to us," she said.

Frontex is currently helping Italy to intercept migrant boats, but the two EU operations in the southern Mediterranean have limited resources - a total of four ships, two helicopters and two planes.

The search and rescue patrols would "help better tracking, identification and rescue of boats, especially migrants' boats", the commissioner's spokesman Michele Cercone said.

"It could help prevent tragedies like the one in Lampedusa," he added.

The search for bodies from the boat that sank a week ago off Lampedusa, between Sicily and Africa, but many of the 500 people who were on board are still missing. The victims were mostly from Eritrea and Somalia.

The alleged captain of the ship, Khaled Bensalam, 35, is in custody in Agrigento, Sicily.

It is thought that other than the skipper, there was only one crewman aboard, and that he did not survive.

Divers are continuing to retrieve the dead from the sunken wreck of the vessel and they have been describing harrowing scenes in the hull which is crammed with bodies.

They talked of there being a wall of corpses tangled together, passengers still locked in the positions in which they drowned, some with their arms outstretched.