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EU under fire as 700 migrants saved off Italy

BRUSSELS--EU leaders came under fire Friday for failing to take immediate action to stop more boat people drowning in the Mediterranean as Italy reported 700 people plucked to safety off Sicily overnight.

The six recue operations came barely three weeks after 400 refugees fleeing conflict in Africa and Syria perished in dramas that shocked the continent.

Expressing “deep sadness” over the recent deaths, a European Union summit vowed action on three fronts — prevention, protection and solidarity.

“The EU cannot accept that thousands of people die at our borders,” Jose Manuel Barroso, who heads the European Commission, the EU's executive, said at the close of the two-day summit.

“The scale of the tragedy in the Mediterranean means we have to act now.”

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta welcomed the pledge of “solidarity” as a step forward in efforts to craft a single migration policy and take joint action on the pressing but politically sensitive issue of migration flows.

But a proposed EU action plan as well as a rethink on broad migration and refugee issues were pushed back to EU summit meetings in December and June 2014.

“The disappointment is sharp,” said Human Rights Watch.

The rights groups also said that EU heads of state so far were focused purely on means of keeping migrants out of fortress Europe.

= Italy says migrant numbers increased fourfold this year to 30,000, Spain says twice as many Africans — 3,000 — have tried to slip through its barbed-wire exclave of Melilla in Morocco this year, and Bulgaria reports seven times as many people trying to cross its border illegally in 2013.

Stopping would-be migrants and asylum-seekers from perishing at sea is difficult for the EU as such as it has no ships, planes or surveillance of its own.

At the summit, EU leaders agreed to provide fresh means and funding to the EU's Frontex border agency and to swiftly implement a new programme to share satellite and drone surveillance data, Eurosur, to detect small vessels in trouble.

Frontex reportedly saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean in the last two years but due to belt-tightening has seen its budget fall from 118 million euros ($162 million) in 2011 to 85 million euros this year.

The summit also pledged tougher action against human trafficking and aid and cooperation with countries of origin and transit to stem the flows.

“Europe can neither save nor welcome the whole world,” the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, told the summit.

“But we are the world's richest continent and so must do more, specially if we act together, seek solutions together, and together take responsibility.”

Unless Europe's approach to asylum and immigration changes, it won't only be the migrants but the EU that drowns off Lampedusa,” said Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of the Italian island whose population of 6,000 has seen 13,000 people wash up on its shore this year.

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