ROME (AP) — The European Commission agreed Wednesday to Italian demands to replace Rome's politically unpopular emergency operation for rescuing would-be refugees crossing the Mediterranean with an EU-wide project.
The European commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, announced plans to beef up the European border patrol agency at a news conference in Brussels alongside Italy's interior minister. She urged all EU member states to contribute planes, ships and personnel to the "Frontex Plus" operation she hopes to launch by November.
Italy began its 9.5 million euro ($13 million) a month "Mare Nostrum" operation last October after 360 migrants drowned off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
Refugee numbers have since swelled as thousands of people have fled conflicts in Syria, Iraq and across the Mideast and Africa, boarding unsafe smugglers' boats in Libya bound for Europe. So far, nearly 110,000 people have been rescued since January, but at least 1,889 others have died making the perilous crossing, the U.N. refugee agency said.
Italy has demanded the EU do more to help out, arguing that it shouldn't bear the burden alone since most migrants want to settle in northern Europe, not Italy.
Malmstrom termed the new EU operation as a way to "complement" Italy's rescue efforts. But Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano was adamant that Europe — not Italy — was now taking the lead in dealing with Mediterranean immigration issues. He said the Italian operation would be phased out as soon as the beefed-up Frontex operation was up and running.
Malmstrom stressed that the size and scope of the new operation was still being worked out, but she said it would be far less ambitious than "Mare Nostrum."
Critics have said Italy unintentionally encouraged more refugees to risk the crossing since Italian ships were at the ready so close to Libyan shores. A more modest air and sea rescue operation, they argue, might dissuade some from making the trip.
Malmstrom said that in addition to the concrete offers needed for Frontex's expanded operations, EU member states must also increase their willingness to take in refugees. She called for the EU to open more legal ways for refugees to resettle "so people don't have to embark on these terrible boat trips and buy a ticket to death."
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