EU agrees to send more ships to stem migrant crisis

Migrants are rescued and set to be shipped to the Italian mainland by the Italian Guardia di Finanza boat "Denaro" in the Mediterranean Sea on April 22, 2014.

European Union leaders on Thursday committed additional ships and other resources in an effort to stem the tide of migrants making deadly voyages across the Mediterranean.

The leaders also began laying the groundwork for military action against traffickers responsible for sending the migrants to sea on rickety boats.

Taking action after hundreds of migrants drowned in recent days, the EU members agreed to triple funding for border operations patrolling the Mediterranean Sea to nearly $10 million a month, Associated Press reported.

“Leaders have already pledged significantly greater support, including many more vessels, aircraft and experts,” EU President Donald Tusk said.

The leaders assigned EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to line up the diplomatic options that would allow the EU military to strike against the boats used by traffickers.

“First and foremost now, we have to save lives and take the right measures to do so,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said as she arrived in Brussels for an emergency EU meeting.

British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Britain would send three ships and three helicopters to the Mediterranean to help rescue efforts. Germany and France each pledged two ships while Belgium and Ireland said they would also commit one, the Associated Press reported. German army sources told the DPA news agency Berlin would pledge three vessels.

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The expanded operation is a reversal from late last year, when the EU took over handling migrant rescues from Italy but scaled it back for budgetary reasons.

The International Organization for Migration said the number of deaths this year — which it puts at 1,727 — is more than 30 times higher than the number within the same time frame last year. Most of those who make the perilous voyage to Europe are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East.

The increased efforts among European leaders came as 220 migrants were rescued by the Italian Coast Guard off the Libyan coast Thursday. Meanwhile, the funerals of 24 people who died on a separate vessel were held Thursday on the Mediterranean island of Malta. More than 800 are believed to have drowned when their boat capsized off Libya late Saturday in what’s considered the worst tragedy involving migrants fleeing by sea to Europe.

“Europe is declaring war on smugglers, and the union will collaborate with international partners,” Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU Commissioner for Migration, said on Malta.

Only 28 people among the 850 believed to be on board the boat survived, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported. Spokesman Adrian Edwards said it was the deadliest incident in the Mediterranean that the agency has ever recorded.

The service for the victims, which included Christian and Muslim prayers, was attended by Malta’s president and prime minister, Italy’s interior minister and the EU’s migration commissioner.

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“We mourn them, because irrespective of our creed, nationality, race, we know that they are our fellow human beings,” said Bishop Mario Grech of the Maltese island of Gozo, according to the AP.

European Council President Donald Tusk said matters that needed to be addressed include how to stop traffickers, improve rescue efforts and step up cooperation with the migrants’ home countries, and those they pass through on their journeys.

“The situation in the Mediterranean is dramatic. It cannot continue like this,” he Tusk said. “We cannot accept that hundreds of people die when trying to cross the sea to Europe.”.

UNHCR joined other organizations to call on European leaders to take concrete action to stem the crisis. “A tragedy of epic proportions is unfolding in the Mediterranean,” said a joint statement Thursday that was signed the U.N.’S top refugee and migration officials. It added that the European Union response must go beyond the “minimalist” approach announced Monday.

“EU leaders must look beyond the present situation and work closely with transit and origin countries both to alleviate the immediate plight of migrants and refugees and address in a more comprehensive way the many factors that drive them to resort to such desperate journeys by sea,” the joint statement said. “Enforcement alone will not solve the issue of irregular migration, but could increase the risks and abuse faced by migrants and refugees.”.

The EU agreed Monday to expand its Mediterranean rescue effort from waters close to European shores to closer to Libya, where many of the migrants’ voyages begin.

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Thursday’s joint statement also called for an immediate and robust search-and-rescue operation, channels for safe and regular migration, an EU-wide resettlement program and bolstering support of countries receiving the most migrants, including Italy, Malta and Greece.

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