Europe

Southern EU officials seek more help with migrants

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — A growing tide of African immigrants are trying to cross the Mediterranean and more European Union money and resources are needed to stop them, the foreign ministers from seven EU nations said Wednesday.

France, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain are unhappy about bearing the costs as tens of thousands of African migrants try to enter the EU illegally each year through their countries. Hundreds fleeing poverty and persecution die in unsafe boats every year.

The foreign ministers from those seven European countries met in the eastern Spanish city of Alicante to discuss ways of tackling the problem, which has become acute. More than 20,500 migrants have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year, compared with 2,500 in the same period in 2013, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told the Italian Parliament on Wednesday. Meanwhile, in the first three months of this year, the number of migrants making it into Spain's North African enclave Melilla surpassed the estimated 1,000 who got in last year.

Many of the migrants who manage to enter the EU through its southern countries later make for northern Europe. Rome wants legal changes so that new arrivals can apply for asylum in their final destination countries, not just where they arrive.

Italy has witnessed a 140 percent increase in the number of people seeking asylum in the first four months of 2014 over the same period in 2013, seriously straining its capabilities. Alfano also called on other European countries to share the burden of the cost of rescuing refugees at sea. Italy's beefed up sea rescue operation — initiated after a migrant boat capsized off Lampedusa in October killing more than 360 people — costs 9 million euros ($12.4 million) a month, he said.

He said the vast majority of migrants reaching Italy this year have come from Eritrea, Mali, Gambia, Somalia, Nigeria, Senegal and Pakistan. He said 121 out of 144 boats bringing them came from Libyan ports — a number he said confirmed the increase in trafficking as Libya's security situation has deteriorated.

The foreign ministers meeting in Alicante urged the EU to expand its development aid programs in African countries as a way of improving living conditions and making people want to stay there, and ensure that transit countries in North Africa are cooperating with efforts to stop trafficking.

Nicole Winfield in Rome and Juergen Baetz in Brussels contributed to this report.

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