ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Tuesday Europe must take responsibility for rescuing boat migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa by making a “significant investment” in the region’s border control agency, Frontex.
“A Europe that tells the Calabrian fisherman that he must use a certain technique to catch tuna but then turns its back when there are dead bodies in the sea cannot call itself civilised,” Renzi said in parliament.
Italy’s navy and coast guard have been patrolling the waters between Africa and the Italian island of Sicily since October, when 366 people drowned after their boat capsized just a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
That tragedy focused world attention on the desperate risks taken by many migrants, whose plight has been highlighted by human rights groups and Pope Francis.
Italy’s Mare Nostrum, or “Our Sea”, navy mission costs about 9 million euros ($12.23 million)(7.2 million pounds) per month, and more than 50,000 migrants have been rescued so far this year. Many are refugees fleeing civil war in Syria or forced military service in Eritrea.
The 39-year-old Renzi, who will attend a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday and takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU next week, is trying to get member states to recognise that Mare Nostrum is in fact a European border issue, and not only an Italian one.
“If, when facing the tragedies of immigration, we are told, ‘This is not our problem,’ then I say keep your single currency and leave us our values,” the prime minister said.
Though about two-thirds of those who are rescued move on quickly to other EU countries, member states have offered Italy little help with Mare Nostrum, and Frontex has provided only limited air surveillance.
Italy - along with Spain, Greece and Malta - have been left mostly on their own to manage the growing number of migrants who seek to enter the EU in boats departing from North Africa, partly because increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in countries like Britain and France makes it unpopular to help out.
“Without stronger collective EU action, this summer could become the Mediterranean’s drowning season,” Benjamin Ward, deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said on Tuesday in a statement.
“EU leaders should give the financial and material backing to continue Italy’s vital efforts to save lives at sea and ensure that those who are rescued land at a safe place and can have any asylum claims fairly heard,” he said. ($1 = 0.7357 Euros)
With additional reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Ralph Boulton