European Union leaders promised more ships, aircraft and money to address the migrant crisis, but doubts remain about whether it will be enough.
BRUSSELS — European leaders came through Thursday with pledges of big ships, aircraft and a tripling in funds to save lives in the Mediterranean after the deaths at sea of more than 1,300 migrants in the past three weeks, and agreed to lay the groundwork for military action against traffickers.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose country has been faced with almost daily tragedy as rescuers plucked bodies from frigid waters, called it “a giant step forward.”
Within days, Britain’s HMS Bulwark and the German supply ship Berlin could be steaming to the heart of the Mediterranean in the biggest sign of the European Union’s (EU) belated commitment to contain the tide of rickety migrant-filled ships making the perilous crossing.
The migrants from Africa and the Middle East, fleeing war and poverty and abetted by ruthless smugglers, have been crossing the Mediterranean in increasing numbers; many never make it.
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The pledge of resources came as victims of the worst migrant disaster in the Mediterranean were buried Thursday in Malta. Two dozen wooden caskets containing the only bodies recovered from a weekend capsizing off Libya that left at least 800 migrants feared dead were laid out for a memorial service.
None of the bodies was identified: One casket had “No. 132” scrawled on it, referring to the number of the DNA sample taken from the corpse in case a relative ever comes to claim it.
As death tolls mounted, EU leaders have done little more than deplore the loss of lives and mark tragedies with moments of silence and wreaths instead of taking action. When Libya disintegrated politically after the overthrow of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi and unrest spread in neighboring countries, the EU failed to take forceful action.
On Thursday, EU leaders pledged to do more, committing at least nine vessels to monitor the waters for traffickers and intervene in case of need. Other member states, from France to Latvia, also lined up more ships, planes and helicopters that could be used to rescue migrants. The 28 member states agreed to triple funding to $9.7 million a month for the EU’s border operation that patrols the Mediterranean.
They also assigned EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini to line up the diplomatic options that would allow EU militaries to strike against the boats used by traffickers. Officials said the lack of a strong Libyan government would likely make U.N. backing necessary.
Huge questions remained about whether the new campaign would be enough to defeat the smugglers and human traffickers. “Right now, it’s a question of fixing yesterday’s errors,” French President François Hollande said. He said the EU would hold a summit in Malta with African countries by this summer to see how the continents can work together to better deal with the crisis.
For Malta, which is on the front line of the tragedies and is the smallest EU member state, the summit produced nothing particularly new. The assets being proposed “will never be enough,” Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat said.
In the past week, more than 10,000 people have been plucked from the high seas between Italy and Libya as desperate migrants threw their lot in with smugglers who charged $1,000 to $2,000 for a spot on overcrowded boats to make the perilous crossing.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, meanwhile, insisted Europe should not take the brunt of blame. “We also ask that Africa, the source of the problem, also collectively takes up its responsibility,” Rutte said. “Last time I checked, Libya was in Africa, not Europe.”
And there is the difficult issue of resettling migrants.
Countries such as Germany, Sweden, France and Italy have dealt with a disproportionate number of asylum requests while many eastern and Baltic member states take hardly any. Five of the 28 member states are handling almost 70 percent of the migrants coming in.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, two weeks away from a national election in which immigration is a major issue, said British vessels would take migrants “to the nearest safe country, mostly likely Italy,” he said.