The EU council observing a minute of silence at the start of this afternoon's summit. Photo: Reuben Piscopo, DOIThe EU council observing a minute of silence at the start of this afternoon's summit. Photo: Reuben Piscopo, DOI

EU leaders last night agreed to reverse a cutback in rescue operations in the Mediterranean and insisted they would go after human traffickers to try to stem the shocking number of migrant deaths.

The budget of the EU’s border control operation Triton has been tripled, equalling that of Italy’s Mare Nostrum which saved the lives of 100,000 last year.

The summit failed to agree issues like the so-called burden sharing concept. Neither did it discuss the possibility of facilitating the process by which refugees gain safer access to protection in EU states.

Instead, the most surprising conclusion is that major efforts will be made to disrupt the traffickers responsible for sending migrants out to sea, often in rickety vessels.

At the end of the summit, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said: “It’s what we expected. There’s a consolidation of previous ideas and points with one notable exception.

“There’s a clear political signal that Europe is ready to act on the criminal network managing the illegal migration flows and profiting from innocent people. A signal has been sent to criminals that the game has changed. They don’t have a field day any longer.”

It is not yet clear how the EU intends going about this but Dr Muscat said attempts would first be made through the UN Security Council.

The meeting between 28 EU leaders was called in the wake of the biggest migrant shipwreck in the Mediterranean last weekend, which claimed about 800 lives. Twenty-four victims were buried in Malta yesterday. A total of 1,750 migrants are believed to have died since the beginning of the year.

The problem turned into a crisis after Italy stopped its expensive Mare Nostrum mission. It was replaced with a smaller EU operation whose main focus was to patrol the bloc’s borders, after some countries argued that saving migrants encouraged more to come. They were proven wrong since asylum seekers still sought to take the risky voyage.

But what happened last weekend has changed the mood in the European Council, according to Dr Muscat.

There appeared to be goodwill from a number of member states last night. British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged his navy’s helicopter-carrying flagship and two other vessels to an operation he previously refused to support. Dr Muscat would not confirm that HMS Bulwark would be based in Malta.

However, though Operation Triton will be beefed up, its operational area remains unchanged, a move which last night faced scathing criticism from Amnesty International.

The planned tripling of finances for Triton would not address the reality of the search and rescue needs in the Mediterranean unless the operational area is extended to the high seas where most of the deaths occur, Amnesty said last night.

Dr Muscat said there was a determination to disrupt trafficking networks. “There’s a clear signal that according to international law, we will identify and destroy the boats used by criminal networks before they are used.”

Asked how the EU could act unilaterally against another country, Dr Muscat said this would be done in line with international law.

“The obvious preferred option would be to require a UN resolution but there are other avenues. But mentioning this prospect alone would be to send an extremely strong signal to the traffickers.”

The Tripoli government’s foreign minister Muhammed El-ghirani told Times of Malta yesterday that his government would not accept any such intervention from Europe.

Asked if he was convinced the summit would help stem the migrant disasters, Dr Muscat said: “Lives will still be lost at sea. It’s not enough. If we don’t stop migrants from getting on rickety boats lives will be lost.

“No, the resources will never be enough. But states pledged finances and assets in the next few months. It’s not a groundbreaking summit. It’s what we expected. It also reinforced the need for a long-term strategy.”

Dr Muscat revealed that a special summit on migration will be held between the EU, the African Union and other key migration countries later this year in Malta. The forum would provide a huge role for NGOs.

Key points from EU leaders’ meeting

• Rapidly reinforce EU operations Triton and Poseidon by at least tripling the financial resources.

• Disrupt trafficking networks, bring the perpetrators to justice and seize their assets.

• Increase support for countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Mali and Niger to monitor and control the land borders and routes.

• Deploy European migration liaison officers in key countries to gather information on migratory flows.

• Launch Regional Development and Protection programmes for North Africa and the Horn of Africa.

• Invite the Commission and the High Representative to mobilise all tools to promote readmission of unauthorised migrants to countries of origin.

• Set up a new return programme for the rapid return of any illegal migrants.

• Increase emergency aid to frontline member states and consider options for organising emergency relocation between all member states on a voluntary basis.

• Set up a first voluntary pilot project on resettlement across the EU.

The summit conclusions can be read here.

'Face-saving not life-saving operation' - Amnesty International

In a statement issued immediately after the summit, Amnesty International said the failure to extend Triton’s operational area would fatally undermine today’s commitment.

“What we witnessed today in Brussels was a face-saving not a life-saving operation. All the words and resources being thrown at this problem suggest that EU leaders are being serious about saving lives at sea. But the reality is they are still only meeting the problem halfway,” Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia John Dalhuisen said.

“Unless they go the extra mile, migrants and refugees will continue to drown and Europe will have again failed shamefully – to deal with this tragedy on its doorstep. If Triton can’t be changed, then Triton is not the solution, however many resources one gives it.”

Amnesty said the planned tripling of finances towards Triton would not address the reality of the search and rescue needs in the Mediterranean unless the operational area was extended to the high seas where most of the deaths occurred.

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