Austria has called for immediate international action to close the Mediterranean route to asylum-seekers trying to reach Europe.
Closing off the crossing is “the only way to end the senseless and tragic dying in the Mediterranean”, Wolfgang Sobotka, the Austrian interior minister said.
The call comes after almost 9,000 migrants were rescued from drowning over Easter after they attempted to cross the Mediterranean in ill-equipped and overcrowded boats.
“A rescue in the open sea cannot be a ticket to Europe, because it gives organised traffickers every argument to convince people to flee for economic reasons,” Mr Sobotka said.
Austria led the successful international effort to close the Balkan route to asylum-seekers last year. Coordinated moves by countries along the route to close their borders effectively sealed it off to migrants, stemming the slow into Europe. The Mediterranean has since emerged as the route of choice for migrants trying to get to Europe.
Thousands of asylum-seekers put out to sea each week from the coast of Libya, seeking to reach the outlying islands of Italy. Some 181,000 came to shore in Italy last year, and arrivals are up by a third so far this year.
There are concerns that as weather improves, Europe will face a new wave of migrants coming via the Mediterranean that could compare with the numbers who arrived via the Balkan route in 2015.
“In the event of a sudden influx, we would be equipped and able to ramp up the border management within hours,” Mr Sobotka said, adding that the Austrian government was in constant contact with Italy over the issue.
But he called for a coordinated effort by European countries to cut off the Mediterranean to new arrivals, modelled on the closure of the Balkan route.
“There is no alternative to a European solution in which the EU’s external border is effectively protected,” he said.
There are grave concerns that the goal of reaching Europe is leading migrants to take grave risks crossing the Mediterranean.
Many of the boats organised traffickers use to carry them are barely seaworthy, and they are often severely overcrowded. Some 850 migrants are estimated to have died attempting the crossing so far this year.
Italy ended its search-and-rescue operations in the area in 2014, and they have since been taken over by Frontex, the EU border agency. Frontex vessels steer clear of the Libyan coast: the agency says to avoid encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing and depend on being rescused. But private charities and NGOs have accused the EU of leaving migrants to die at its back door, and taken up their own rescue missions in the area.