EU proposes refugee quota to address boats crisis

EU proposes refugee quota to address boats crisis

The European Union has released a new plan aimed at stemming the massive influx of people coming to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean Sea. 

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

The European Union has released a new plan aimed at stemming the massive influx of people coming to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean Sea.

It's proposed increasing the bloc's intake of what it calls "displaced people in clear need of international protection" by up to 20,000 over two years, then distributing them across Europe.

However some countries will have the option not to accept any of them.

Michael Kenny reports.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

The announcement of the EU plan comes amid growing concern over the large numbers of people who have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean from northern Africa.

The United Nations refugee agency estimates about 1,800 people have perished on the journey this year alone, with 51,000 entering Europe over the same timeframe.

Under a $70 million scheme proposed by the EU Commission, European countries with the greatest economic output and land size would be expected to take in the most people.

EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans believes it is a fair plan which would share out the responsibility in an equitable way.

"It's not acceptable for people around the EU to say 'Yes, stop people dying in the Mediterranean' and at the same time remain silent when the question is raised about what should happen to these people once they are saved in the Mediterranean."

Under the proposal, Germany would take the most people, followed by France and Italy.

Germany's Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere says he believes it is a sensible plan.

"Germany will continue to face its responsibility towards vulnerable people. But there has to be fairness throughout Europe. And it's not asking for too much if we demand that everybody participates. And this proposal accounts for that."

25 of the 28 EU member states are likely to take part in the scheme.

Britain has criticised the plan.

British Interior Minister Theresa May believes it would be more effective to send the people back to their home countries to deter people-smuggling.

"We need to deal with this trade in human beings - these callous criminals who are trading on people's aspirations and who are profiting from trying to move them across Africa and into Europe and we need to do that in a variety of different ways. Part of that of course is ensuring that people can be returned to Africa."

Britain, Ireland and Denmark can opt out of the proposed scheme by claiming an exemption under the EU's Lisbon Treaty.

The treaty effectively allows these countries to adopt their own approach on immigration matters, independent of any stance taken by the EU.

Aid agency Save the Children spokeswoman Francine Uenema believes all EU member states have a responsibility to play their part in preventing more people from dying at sea.

"The responsibility doesn't start when they reach European shores. It starts when they're out on the Mediterranean and their lives are at immediate, daily risk. So to be able to have those operations continue proactively to search for them, we believe that that's going to save lives."

Along with the proposed quota scheme, EU foreign ministers are also discussing plans for a naval and air mission in the Mediterranean to seize people smugglers' vessels.

Most people travel to Europe through Libya, which has descended into chaos nearly four years after the fall of veteran leader Muammar Gadaffi.

The EU's Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, says the mission would be carried out in a responsible way.

"We are not planning in any possible way a military intervention in Libya. This is not in any possible way a way or an option for us. What we are planning is a naval operation - in coordination hopefully with the relevant Libyan authorities - a naval operation to dismantle the business model of the criminal organisations that are acting, smuggling and trafficking people."

The suggestion has triggered some concern from human rights groups.

Human Rights Watch senior researcher Judith Sunderland believes the plan could hurt vulnerable asylum seekers and desperate migrants.

"People will come no matter what. They will find a way. People will throw themselves into the sea. Some have even said that people were talking about taking oxygen tanks and trying to swim across the Mediterranean. I certainly hope that's not true. But it reflects the desperation and the desire and even the courage that people have to try and get to Europe."

 

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