280 coffins

By the coffins in Lampedusa. Photo: European Commission

By the coffins in Lampedusa. Photo: European Commission

Today, I visited Lampedusa together with Italy’s Prime Minister Letta, Interior Minister Alfano and Commission President Barroso. I spoke to Minister Alfano on Thursday morning, right after the terrible tragedy, and he asked me to come to the island.

Lampedusa is a very small island, situated closer to Tunisia than Sicily. 6000 people live on 20 square kilometres. Far too often, those who live here have to watch as drowned refugees are being carried ashore.

It is an unspeakable tragedy that hundreds of people, who were fleeing dictatorship and oppression in Eritrea and Somalia, drowned just off the shores of Europe. To stand in front of 280 coffins, some of them for small children, was horrible. On top of the children’s coffins, there were teddy bears. This is a terrible reminder of how difficult it is to come to Europe in a legal and safe way.

We also had a long discussion about Lampedusa at the Council meeting yesterday. All EU Member States expressed their concern and solidarity. Perhaps this can be the turning point towards another kind of migration policy, with a focus on cooperation and more open paths to Europe? I can’t say for sure.

From the Commission’s side I have proposed several measures. First, we need to re-organise the efforts of Frontex in the Mediterranean, into one comprehensive coast-to-coast operation from Spain to Cyprus. It should be focused on search and rescue, as in discovering vessels in time, so that more lives can be saved. Furthermore, we need to continue our cooperation with countries on the other side of the Mediterranean, and have them step up their efforts in preventing ruthless smuggling networks who earn their money by smuggling people in despair. Countries such as Morocco and Tunisia can also do more to develop their asylum reception standards in accordance with international norms.

We also need more legal ways to come to Europe, for example through the resettlement of refugees from Syria in cooperation with the United Nations. Far too few EU Member States are accepting resettled refugees today. All 28 countries should make an effort! Still, the reason for the shipwreck disaster last week is that it is so difficult to enter the European Union legally. Therefore, we should seriously consider other options to make it safer to come to Europe for those who flee their home countries. Humanitarian visas could be a solution in this regard.

Regarding the urgent needs of Italy, we need to make sure that the reception centre in Lampedusa, as well as reception centres in other parts of Italy, are renovated to ensure dignified reception conditions. Commission President Barroso announced that the Commission can contribute with up to 30 million Euros for efforts in asylum centres, humanitarian relief efforts, integration projects etcetera.

During our short and intense visit, we also managed to meet the Mayor as well as people on the island who worked on rescue operations, as well as volunteer organisations and not least refugees from several countries. We had the opportunity to talk to a young boy from Eritrea who was on the sunken ship. His parents had given everything they had to give him a future outside of Eritrea, in freedom.

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