The European Union is using the drowning deaths of people fleeing to Europe as a pretext for ramping up border controls against unwanted migrants, a human rights group said Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch said the drowning of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea this month should prompt the EU to chart a new policy course toward people fleeing war and dire poverty.
Leaders of the 28-nation bloc are to discuss how to avoid future boat disasters at a meeting Friday in Brussels.
"Though framed in terms of saving lives, many of the proposed policy responses reflect the EU's preoccupation with preventing departure and barring entry," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
The New York-based group urged the EU to increase its sea patrols and discourage clandestine crossings by smugglers by guaranteeing that anyone picked up at sea will be taken to a safe European port.
According to the rights group, an estimated 35,000 people have crossed from North Africa to Italy and Malta this year alone — many of them fleeing persecution or fighting in Somalia, Eritrea or Syria. At least 500 have died this year, including about 365 people who drowned Oct. 3 when their boat capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa as it was coming from Libya.
In May, the EU created a 30 million-euro ($41-million) task force to train Libya's border guards to better control its vast desert frontiers. But European governments have been reluctant to provide more ways to enter the bloc legally, as demanded by rights campaigners.
One EU rule that has caused particular friction stipulates that refugees have to apply for asylum in the first EU nation they enter. This has placed particular burdens on Greece, Italy and Malta.
Human Rights Watch accused northern European countries such as Germany of blocking any meaningful reforms of the rules that allow Berlin to turn away refugees who arrived from another EU state. Thousands of refugees have still made their way from Italy to Germany in recent months, with many hiding their original port of entry into the EU to avoid being deported.
A German government spokesman insisted Wednesday there would be no change to the rules, despite recent protests and hunger strikes by refugees in several German cities.
"We treat refugees very well here, we take a lot of them in," spokesman Georg Streiter told reporters in Berlin.
Frank Jordans can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/wirereporter