As the International Organization for Migration (IOM) called for swift action from the European Union following the worst tragedy in living memory involving migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa, the EU foreign ministers gathered in Luxembourg to discuss the situation. Estonian Foreign Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus said that rather than focusing on the asylum seekers, the most important task is to ensure peace in Libya and catch and prosecute the traffickers.
According to IOM, more than 1,750 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean since the start of the year - over 30 times more than during the same period in 2014. In the latest incident, up to 900 migrants are missing and feared dead after a wooden fishing boat, on which they were hoping to reach the shores of Europe, capsized near Libya.
“The world needs to react with the conviction with which it eliminated piracy off the coast of Somalia a few years ago,” said William Lacy Swing, IOM’s Director General. “All of us, especially the EU and the world’s powers can no longer sit on the sidelines watching, while this tragedy unfolds in slow motion.”
Estonia's foreign minister, who participated in the meeting in Luxembourg, told ERR that dealing with asylum seekers is an aftermath, but the real focus should be on ensuring peace in Libya and targeting the people-smugglers.
Pentus-Rosimannus said that European foreign ministers were looking for practical solutions in Luxembourg. “Our discussions started with listening the concerns and proposals of Italy, Malta and Greece – the countries most directly affected by an increasing number of refugees from north Africa. But it is obvious that in one way or another, it is a concern for all the EU member states.”
There were three main topics at the foreign ministers meeting. First, stabilizing the political situation in Libya where currently the main exodus comes from. Pentus-Rosimannus conceded that a solution is hard to come by in the conflict-ridden country and progress has been slow, but rejected a suggestion that the refugee problem could have been avoided had the former leader Gaddafi still been in power.
Secondly, the EU is planning to target the organized crime network and prosecute smugglers when caught. This includes a systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers and gather information and share intelligence between European institutions. It was also proposed to deploy European immigration liaison officers in key third world countries, to gather intelligence on migratory flows.
Third priority lies in the strengthening of the EU southern border and increased support on life-saving operations – something that has recently become a heavy burden for Italy.
Report: Estonia's refugee policy needs revision
While the southern European member states of the EU expect more solidarity from the rest of Europe, Estonia has so far refused to be part of the UN Refugee Agency's displacement programs and taken a firm stand against any solidarity mechanisms within the EU, says a review of Estonia's refugee policy and reception system, commissioned by the NGO Estonian Refugee Council.
Estonia grants asylum to a just few dozen people a year. The reasons include the geographical distance of Estonia from main source countries, Estonia not being on or near the main transit routes of refugees. Lack of native communities, Estonia's conservative and discouraging refugees policy, and EU's reportedly hostile border and asylum policies are also cited.
Estonia has not allowed for any other refugee status to complement the ones set by the EU conventions, granting asylum for humanitarian reasons, for example - like Finland, Sweden and a host of other countries. Neither does Estonia grant temporary protection that the authors of the report say could help the refugees from Ukraine.
"The underlying principles of Estonia's national asylum policies have been not to take on any additional responsibilities and to apply intimidation," the authors conclude, adding that the increased pressure from the EU will hopefully force Estonian policymakers to revise the current system.
Editor: S. Tambur, M. Oll