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Italy to demand action on migrant crisis at EU summit

Italy's Prime Minister Enrico Letta attends a news conference in Lampedusa October 9, 2013. REUTERS/Calogero Lampo
Italy's Prime Minister Enrico Letta attends a news conference in Lampedusa October 9, 2013. REUTERS/Calogero Lampo

By James Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Italy will seek an overhaul of European asylum policies and emergency action to handle a crisis that has seen tens of thousands of African migrants arrive in Sicily and hundreds of deaths, Prime Minister Enrico Letta said on Tuesday.

Speaking ahead of a European Council meeting on Thursday and Friday, Letta said chronic instability in Africa and the Middle East meant the disasters earlier this month, in which as many as 550 migrants drowned, would not be the last of their kind.

"No one should be under any illusion that these tragedies are passing episodes or that they will end with the arrival of bad weather," he told the Italian parliament.

Italy last week stepped up naval and air patrols with four patrol ships, long-range helicopters and unmanned drone aircraft to spot migrant boats in the southern Mediterranean. It has been offered some bilateral help by Finland and Slovenia but Letta said a more concerted EU effort is needed.

The breakdown of order in Libya and the civil war in Syria have compounded the decades-long migrant crisis, in which a seemingly endless stream of rickety and unsafe boats reach the tiny southern Italian island of Lampedusa during the summer months when calmer seas make sailing possible.

More than 32,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East have arrived in Italy and Malta so far this year, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with many leaving from the lawless ports of Libya.

Letta said he would ask EU leaders in Brussels to recognize the crisis as a matter of joint responsibility under the main EU treaty which would guarantee the financial burden is shared with the rest of the bloc's members.

He would also ask for more resources from the Frontex border control agency and Eurosur, a pan-European border surveillance system intended to reduce migrant deaths at sea, and broader diplomatic action with countries in Africa and the Middle East.

ASYLUM SHAKEUP

"Beyond these immediate measures, it's obvious to everyone that the tragedies we are witnessing require a broad assessment of the European Union's immigration and asylum policies. Are these policies adequate? I don't think so," he said.

Under current European law, most asylum seekers who enter without proper authorization are obliged to remain in the country where they first arrive in Europe.

About two-thirds of those arriving on migrant boats this year have requested asylum, putting a heavy strain on countries like Italy and Greece, which have been hit hard by recession and the effects of the euro zone debt crisis.

The rise of anti-immigration parties in countries from Italy to France, the Netherlands, Belgium or Finland have made governments reluctant to extend asylum protection, but Letta said the issue could not be left to southern EU countries.

"The bell is tolling for everyone. For Europe as a whole and for each one of its members, even those furthest away."

He discussed the issue at a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Monday and said the migrant crisis would be a priority next year when first Greece, then Italy hold the EU's rotating presidency.

"The discussion on Thursday and Friday will be decisive for getting this on the right track and we won't accept lowest common denominator compromises in Brussels," Letta said.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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