European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said surveillance should be ramped up in the Mediterranean to combat migrant crossings, as she visited the migrant hotspot of Lampedusa in Italy on Sunday.
The EU official said surveillance via sea and land could be managed through the EU border agency Frontex, as she toured the island with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
“We will decide who comes to the European Union and under what circumstances, and not the smugglers and traffickers,” von der Leyen said. “The most effective measure to counter the smugglers’ lies are legal pathways and humanitarian corridors.” She stressed that the better the EU gets at managing legal migration, the “stricter” it can be with irregular migration.
The far-right Italian leader had called on the Commission president to view the migration crisis first hand, after the tiny island’s local council declared a state of emergency this week. Several thousand people have arrived on the island between Sicily and North Africa in recent days, leading to overcrowding at the reception camp.
Von der Leyen added that she supported exploring options to expand existing naval missions in the Mediterranean or working on new ones.
Far-right prime minister Meloni called for a tougher approach. She contends that the only way to stop irregular boat crossings is by preventing migrants from setting off in the first place. Attempting to distribute the people arriving on Italy’s shores across Europe is, in her opinion, not enough.
Italy, along with other Mediterranean EU states, has for years been asking Brussels for more support to deal with large numbers of migrants arriving at its shores.
More than 127,200 people have already reached Italy via sea this year, according to the latest Interior Ministry figures.
Because of its proximity to the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax, Lampedusa has long been one of the main destinations for migrants from North Africa seeking to reach European shores.
On Saturday, a newborn baby died on a boat which arrived on Lampedusa. Its mother had given birth with the help of other people on the boat.
Von der Leyen and Meloni visited the first reception centre on the island, which a few days ago recorded 6,800 people. The two officials also visited the pier designated for migrant arrivals. Metal boats were seen floating on the water.
There are currently three Frontex operations active in the Mediterranean Sea intended to secure the EU’s external borders, to fight against smugglers and rescue people in distress, according to EU information.
However, the agency has been sharply crticized for repeated reports of illegal so-called “pushbacks” of migrants over the border they are trying to cross. Pushbacks are illegal under international law.
The expansion of surveillance at the EU’s external borders is part of a 10-point plan presented by von der Leyen on Sunday. The plan also stipulates that the training of the Tunisian coastguard and other law enforcement agencies is to be improved.
In light of the humanitarian and political crisis unfolding on Lampedusa, the EU’s asylum agency is set to help Italy register new refugees. The EU will also help offer transport routes off the island, said von der Leyen. She appealed to member states to take up more migrants under the EU’s Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism.