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Lampedusa mayor warns EU must change asylum policy

Carabinieri military police stand on the San Leone pier in the southern Sicilian city of Agrigento on October 21, 2013 during a ceremony commemorating migrants who drowned off the southern Italian islad of Lampedusa
Carabinieri military police stand on the San Leone pier in the southern Sicilian city of Agrigento on October 21, 2013 during a ceremony commemorating migrants who drowned off the southern Italian islad of Lampedusa

The mayor of the Italian island of Lampedusa warned European leaders gathered Thursday in a summit that they need an urgent rethink on immigration -- with Mediterranean and Balkan states demanding urgent EU action.

The little Mediterranean island has been swamped by an exodus from neighbouring north Africa and hit the headlines this month when hundreds of African refugees and migrants drowned off its shores.

Two shipwrecks that claimed more than 400 lives propelled immigration and asylum onto the agenda for the two-day talks in Brussels.

"The European Union's asylum policy has to change," said Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini, who was in Brussels to meet European Parliament head Martin Schulz.

"Unless Europe's approach to asylum and immigration changes, it won't only be the migrants but the EU that drowns off Lampedusa," Nicolini told reporters.

More than 13,000 refugees and migrants have sought asylum on Lampedusa this year -- more than double the population of the island, which is located off the coasts of Libya and Tunisia.

Nicolini said taking asylum requests in EU embassies in the refugees' countries of departure before people pile onto overloaded and ill-equipped boats would be a good start to immigration reform.

"It's shameful to make them swim," she said, repeatedly accusing Europe of "looking away" instead of tackling the question head-on.

A team of specialists despatched to Rome after the Lampedusa tragedies was to report back to the 28-state EU's leaders at the summit.

Immigration charities estimate between 17,000 and 20,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe over the past 20 years, often crossing on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, whose debt-shattered country is also struggling to contain a big migrant influx from the EU's porous south-eastern flank, flagged up the urgency for the union as a whole.

Europe must find "the right solution for a long-overdue problem of paramount importance for the southern Mediterranean, the acute problem of illegal immigration," he said on going into the meeting.

The EU enshrines a right to freedom of movement for citizens within its borders, and internally has mostly done away with physical national borders.

The leaders of Mediterranean Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, plus Croatia on the EU's Balkans frontier, are pushing for difficult decisions on immigration to be taken as early as Friday morning.

However, diplomats also warned that significant electoral challenges from anti-immigrant parties in Britain and France -- both big draws for immigrants -- would prove a hindrance at least in the run-up to European Parliament elections next May.

More cautious governments insist that abuses of Europe's immigration system also need to be tackled.

Draft conclusions for the summit refer only to a desire to "step up" action to better manage the flow of immigrants into the EU, even as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the Mediterranean Sea risked becoming an "open-air cemetery".

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has already urged fellow leaders to bolster the EU's Frontex border agency and bring forward Eurosur, a planned satellite-and-drone surveillance programme to detect migrant ships in trouble.

Frontex reportedly saved 16,000 lives in the Mediterranean in the last two years, but has seen its budget fall from 118 million euros ($162 million) in 2011 to 85 million euros this year due to crisis-era belt-tightening.

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