LAMPEDUSA, Italy (AP) — The head of the European Commission announced Wednesday during a visit to Lampedusa that Italy would receive an additional 30 million euros ($40 million) in EU funds to help settle and receive new refugees, after the sinking of a migrant boat off the Sicilian island killed at least 297 people.
Officials also announced that migration would be on the agenda of the European leaders' summit Oct. 24-25 and would have a priority place in the 2014 EU agenda, which Greece and Italy will spearhead during their presidencies.
"The EU cannot accept that thousands of people die at its borders," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters after touring Lampedusa's migrant holding center. "The challenges that Lampedusa and Italy are facing are European challenges."
The European Union has long taken a back seat regarding border security and asylum policies, leaving the problem mainly to its member states. But last week's sinking of a smuggler's boat carrying 500 migrants came as a bitter wake-up call to European officials that more cooperation will be needed to avert further tragedies of that scale. That will include more assistance to the countries most affected by the influx of refugees from Africa, namely Italy, Greece and Spain.
In an indication of a shift in approach at home, Premier Enrico Letta announced that the victims of the disaster would receive a state funeral. He stressed that unlike the economic migrants who flocked to Italy during the 1990s, the new arrivals are by and large political refugees fleeing persecution at home — and that that shift requires a change in mentality about how they should be received and integrated once they arrive in Europe.
Some islanders shouted "Shame! Shame!" as Barroso and Letta arrived at Lampedusa's airport, then protested outside city hall where they met with the island's mayor. As riot police held them back, the locals held signs saying "Lampedusans' rights adrift."
Lampedusans have long complained that they have been forgotten by Italy and the EU, left to cope alone with the thousands of migrants who come ashore each year from Africa and the Middle East. Barroso acknowledged that Italy and other southern Mediterranean countries have borne the brunt of the arrivals, but noted that northern European countries such as Germany, France, Britain, Sweden and Belgium actually receive the bulk of asylum-seekers for permanent settlement. Those countries took 72 percent of the 330,000 asylum applications in the EU in 2012.
Italy receives a fraction of such applications — 16,000 last year — as refugees generally tend to head to northern European countries with more established immigrant communities. Nevertheless, Barroso announced 30 million euros in extra EU funds to help Italy improve the standards at its immigrant holding centers to better care for new arrivals while their cases are processed.
The Lampedusa center, for example, routinely houses far more than the 850 people for which it has capacity. This week, recent arrivals have slept outside in the rain because there was no space inside for them. Of critical concern is caring for unaccompanied minors.
Barroso visited the center and also the airport hangar where the coffins of the dead have been laid out. "That image of hundreds of coffins will never get out of my mind," he said. On Tuesday, EU interior ministers agreed in principle to explore ways of strengthening the patrol capabilities of the Frontex border protection agency to try to prevent similar tragedies.
EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, who also visited Lampedusa Wednesday, proposed expanding Frontex's search and rescue operations to range across the Mediterranean Sea "from Spain to Cyprus." No details have been worked out, including who would pay for the increased patrols.
Barroso said there is an obvious need to improve search-and-rescue and surveillance operations to track boats better. Malmstrom said the EU needs to also improve ways for people to legally migrate to Europe without having to risk their lives in boats.
"This is not the EU that we want," she said. Lampedusa is a tiny speck of an island closer to Africa than to the Italian mainland. It is the destination of choice of smugglers leaving from Libya or Tunisia.
While the tragedy has exposed the shortcomings of EU policy, it also has laid bare Italy's own problematic laws criminalizing illegal migration. Letta said he was "ashamed" that all the 155 survivors of the sinking have been placed under investigation by prosecutors.
Winfield reported from Rome. Juergen Baetz contributed from Brussels.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield