ROME (Reuters) - The European Union must take a collective stand to tackle migrant trafficking at its source in African countries, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Wednesday ahead of an emergency summit of the bloc’s leaders to discuss the crisis.
Up to 900 people were feared dead after their boat sank on its way to Europe from Libya at the weekend including many women and children locked below deck, prompting calls for joint action to stop the flow of migrants fleeing war and hardship in Africa.
The deaths caused shock in Europe where a decision to scale back naval operations last year seems to have increased the risks for migrants without reducing their numbers.
EU officials, worried about encouraging people to make the crossing just as economic troubles in some European countries fan concerns over immigration, have struggled to come up with a response but proposed doubling rescue operations on Monday.
Renzi spoke as Italian navy and coast guard vessels were taking more than 1,200 migrants rescued in other operations since Monday to ports across southern Italy. One ship carrying 545 migrants, including 174 women and children, was heading to Salerno, on the mainland south of Naples, to ease the strain on overcrowded centers receiving migrants in ports in Sicily.
He said the EU should have a more visible role, with U.N. backing, in sub-Saharan countries where migrants originate, calling on the bloc to make a “long-term investment” in Africa.
“We are asking for this to be a priority for an EU that wants to be something other than an assembly of member countries in an economic club, something other than a club of learned technicians that knows all the geopolitical dynamics and forgets to respond to the pain of our times,” he told parliament.
Renzi, who has often urged Europe to share more of the responsibility for handling the migrant crisis, said the latest tragedy had galvanized world attention and was very optimistic that the bloc could now “change tack” on the issue.
“We need to face this situation politically. This time, the world did not look the other way,” he said.
“This is continuing right now, it will continue in the coming days and weeks. Anyone who says otherwise thinks they can empty the sea with a teaspoon.”
Asked about how Europe can help Italy more, EU Commissioner for migration Dimitris Avramopoulos told La Stampa newspaper on Wednesday the bloc “cannot impose quotas” on the number of migrants accepted by countries.
“We will launch a pilot project of voluntary relocation for refugees. We will welcome those in need who want to accept,” he said.
The EU on Monday agreed to a 10-point plan to prevent more tragedies, including doubling its small naval mission in the Mediterranean, which replaced a far larger Italian operation.
The bloc also proposed efforts to capture and destroy vessels used by people smugglers, two of whom have been blamed by Italian prosecutors for the weekend’s disaster.
Italy phased out a dedicated maritime search and rescue operation called “Mare Nostrum” or “Our Sea” late last year, making way for a European Union border control mission.
The EU operation, called Triton, has been criticized by humanitarian groups and Italian authorities as it has a much smaller budget and a narrower remit than Mare Nostrum.
Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome and Cristiano Corvino in Salerno; writing by Isla Binnie and Philip Pullella; editing by Anna Willard