EU rescue ships head for Libya, as migrants die also in Balkans

Reuters , Saturday 25 Apr 2015

Members of an an Italian Financial Police unit rescue migrants off the Libyan coast after approaching an inflatable dinghy crowded with them, in the Mediterranean Sea, Wednesday, April 22, 2015. (Photo: AP)

British and German warships made ready to sail for waters off Libya as Europe ramped up rescue operations in the Mediterranean after up to 900 desperate migrants drowned last weekend on a boat heading for Italy.

Yet hours after European Union leaders agreed in Brussels on Thursday to treble funding for EU maritime missions and pledged more ships and aircraft, 14 clandestine migrants were killed when a train ploughed into dozens of Somalis and Afghans making their way in darkness along a rail track in a Macedonian gorge.

The incident highlighted the variety of routes that growing numbers are taking to escape war and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and chance their luck in a wealthy region that offers, at best, a chilly welcome. EU governments remain deeply at odds over how to share out the care of those who make it.

After the sinking of a packed fishing vessel last weekend nearly doubled the death toll at sea this year to almost 2,000, EU leaders responded to a public outcry by reversing sharp cuts in search and rescue operations -- though voters' wariness of immigration means few are willing to take in many more refugees.

Britain's helicopter-carrying flagship Bulwark, currently near Istanbul, will head for the area between Libya and Italy on Sunday, the government said. However, Prime Minister David Cameron, who faces a threat from anti-immigration populists as he seeks re-election in less than two weeks, stressed when he offered it on Thursday that few of those rescued would come to Britain.

Germany, favored destination for many migrants who make it to Europe, said on Friday it would have a frigate and a supply vessel in the area within days to comb the sea for refugees.

Nearly 40,000 have made it to Italy so far this year, though Germany and its neighbors complain that Italy and Greece do too little to track those who arrive and then swiftly head north.

EU border agency Frontex says 276,000 people entered the bloc illegally last year, more than double the number in 2013. Sea crossings to Italy quadrupled to 170,000 as anarchy in Libya opened opportunities for people smuggling gangs. Some 43,000 came into the EU last year via the Balkans but 32,000 arrived in just the first three months of this year, Frontex data shows.

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