EU leaders show plan to thwart Mediterranean migration wave

But stepped-up effort faces huge political, economic obstacles

European Union leaders Thursday pledged to step up efforts to try to stem a wave of deadly migration across treacherous Mediterranean waters that has claimed hundreds of lives in just the past week.

But the plan to thwart the lucrative smuggling trade faces huge political and economic obstacles, as millions of refugees in war-torn and impoverished nations seek better lives in Europe.

Italian police officers look on as shipwrecked migrants line up to receive first aid from Italian Red Cross personnel as they arrive in the Italian port of Augusta in Sicily on April 16, 2015
Giovanni Isolino | AFP | Getty Images
Italian police officers look on as shipwrecked migrants line up to receive first aid from Italian Red Cross personnel as they arrive in the Italian port of Augusta in Sicily on April 16, 2015

"There is such a mass of people who are disposed at any cost to leave and come with the prospect of jobs or liberty and a better future," said Marianna Vintiadis, who heads the Italian office of Kroll Associates, a risk management consultancy. "They're spending 15 to 20 times the price of a plane ticket to make the most atrocious journey of their lives."

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A draft of the plan obtained by The Associated Press includes a pledge by the 28-nation bloc to double its spending on search and rescue operations to save lives, as well as to seize and destroy vessels used for human smuggling before they leave shore.

British Prime Minister David Cameron committed his country's navy flagship, HMS Bulwark, along with three helicopters and two border patrol ships to the EU effort. Germany reportedly pledged to send a troop supply ship and two frigates to assist in the effort. Belgium and Ireland also offered to deploy navy ships.

The stepped-up efforts to halt a lethal wave of northward migration come as search and rescue operations have brought hundreds of bodies ashore in a series of deadly shipwrecks carrying migrants seeking passage to Europe. The immigrant wave is being driven by strong demand for passage from people fleeing civil unrest, persecution or chronic unemployment in their home countries.

"Europe is declaring war on smugglers," AP quoted the EU's top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who was in Malta to attend the funeral of 24 migrants who perished at sea.Italy's proximity to Africa has made it another favored smuggling route. Italian ships recently rescued some 10,000 migrants in a single week, according to the IOM, bringing the total number of migrants reaching Italian shores to more than 21,000 so far this year. In 2013, more than 26,000 migrants arrived through April 30, the IOM said, citing the Italian Ministry of Interior figures.

Though northern African ports are popular transit points, millions of refugees are making their way from trouble spots across the continent, according to data collected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many more are displaced in their home country, unable to flee or seek asylum abroad.

The cost in human life is staggering. In just the past week, the International Organization for Migration says it received reports of 400 migrant deaths in a boat that capsized on April 14 south of Malta, with 50 more deaths reported on April 17. Those reports follow news of an estimated 770 lives lost off the coast of Libya over the weekend.

The Geneva-based group estimates the death toll on the Mediterranean so far this year is more than 1,700 migrants. The figure is believed to be pacing well above last year's numbers.

Thousands more have been saved but face a return to their home countries.

Despite Thursday's pledge to step up search rescue efforts and intercept smuggling ships before they set sail, there was little support for easing politically popular restrictions on immigration across Europe. Tight quotas mean many of those risking their lives to travel to Europe are unable to obtain a visa or asylum status.

Thursday's statement from EU leaders called proposes streamlining the process of granting asylum to those seeking passage to Europe by cutting the time required for approval , which can take up to a year, to as little as two months. The group also agreed to a voluntary resettlement plan to offer asylum to some 5,000 refugees.

That's just fraction of the tens of thousands expected to arrive this year. Proposals to further ease immigration restrictions highlight the divisions among EU members, with oppoisiton strongest in countries facing the greatest resettlement burdens. Just a handful of European countries – including German, France and Italy - are seeing the largest waves of migrants coming to the continent, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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The effort to thwart the wave of migrants will also have to overcome the powerful economic forces behind the deadly trade of human trafficking.

Smugglers who arrange those lethal passages stand to generate huge profits. The often deadly business model involves a relatively small investment in an ancient, sometimes unseaworthy vessel, which is then crammed with desperate passengers paying as much as $1,000 each for the treacherous and unsupervised trip.

Many of the aging vessels are then abandoned at sea, with immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere still on board. The smugglers rely on the emergency services of the destination country to seize and rescue the vessel before it makes landfall.

But that assumption can be lethal for the boat's human cargo. This spring, the continued turmoil in many regions of Africa, combined with the prospect of a better life in Europe, have sparked a wave of deaths.

Thursday's plan to slow the flow of migrants will have little impact on the forces that are driving millions of migrants north. That longer-range effort involves diplomatic efforts to quell civil unrest or increased aid and investment to help better economic opportunities in refugees' home countries, say analysts.

"It's clear that economic development would be the prime mover—which takes time," said Vintiadis. "But the reason there is this sense of emergency is that, with the number of people dying, which is so horrifying ... maybe we don't have time."