EU announces aid package to Italy for refugees

Announcement came during visit to Lampedusa, after the sinking of a boat off the island killed at least 275 migrants

The head of the European Commission announced Wednesday during a visit to Lampedusa that Italy would receive an additional $40 million in EU funds to help receive and settle refugees, after the sinking of a migrant boat off the Sicilian island killed at least 275 people last week.

A survivor of the shipwreck off the Italian coast walk in Lampedusa, Italy. The search for bodies continues off the coast of Southern Italy as the death toll of African migrants who drowned as they tried to reach the island of Lampedusa is expected to reach over 300 people. Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

A survivor of the shipwreck off the Italian coast walk in Lampedusa, Italy. The search for bodies continues off the coast of Southern Italy as the death toll of African migrants who drowned as they tried to reach the island of Lampedusa is expected to reach over 300 people. Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Jose Manuel Barroso also pledged to work “tirelessly” to implement an EU-wide asylum policy and to beef up Frontex – the European border patrol agency – to prevent similar tragedies.

He visited Lampedusa with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who announced that the victims of the disaster would receive a state funeral.

Recovery operations are continuing to locate the victims of the Oct. 3 sinking of a smugglers’ boat with an estimated 500 people on board. Only 155 survived.

Some islanders shouted “Shame! Shame!” as Barroso and Letta arrived, and then protested outside city hall where they met with Lampedusa’s mayor. As riot police held them back, they held signs saying “Lampedusans’ rights adrift.”

Lampedusans have long complained that they have been forgotten by Italy and the EU, left to cope alone with the thousands of migrants who come ashore each year from Africa and the Middle East. Italy has demanded the EU do more to patrol the Mediterranean and help countries at the frontier of migrant arrivals.

Barroso acknowledged that Italy and other southern Mediterranean countries like Greece bear the brunt of the arrivals, but noted that northern European countries like Germany, France, Britain, Sweden and Belgium actually receive the bulk of asylum-seekers for permanent settlement. Those countries took 72 percent of the 330,000 asylum applications in the EU in 2012.

Italy receives a fraction of such applications – 16,000 last year – and Barroso said Italy and Austria should share more of the burden. Nevertheless, he announced 30 million euros in extra EU funds to help Italy improve the standards at its immigrant holding centers to better care for new arrivals.

The Lampedusa center, for example, routinely houses far more than the 850 people for which it has capacity. This week, recent arrivals have slept outside in the rain because there was no space inside for them.

Barroso visited the center and also the airport hangar where the coffins of the dead have been laid out. “That image of hundreds of coffins will never get out of my mind,” he said.

On Tuesday, EU interior ministers agreed in principle to explore ways of strengthening the patrol capabilities of the Frontex border protection agency to try to prevent similar tragedies.

EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, who also visited Lampedusa Wednesday, proposed expanding Frontex’s search and rescue operations to range across the Mediterranean Sea “from Spain to Cyprus.” No details have been worked out, including who will pay for the increased patrols.

Lampedusa is a tiny island closer to Africa than to the Italian mainland. It is the destination of choice for smugglers leaving from Libya or Tunisia.

Source: Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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