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As Lampedusa tragedy fades, can Europe prevent a repeat?

As hundreds of victims from the boat sinking are quietly buried, experts fear the initial shock won't translate into major changes in EU migration policy.

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The caskets of some of the migrants who died when their boat capsized off in the Canal of Sicily are lifted to be embarked on a Italian Navy ship at the Lampedusa island harbor, Oct. 12.

Mauro Buccarello/AP

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An Italian beach on the shores of Lampedusa has long been a testament to the dangerous forces of migration: It is littered with the debris of wrecked boats or those that barely arrived, crammed with hundreds of passengers from Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, and Syria.

But it was not until a shipwreck earlier this month in which 350 African migrants died that revulsion became widespread, prompting Italian Prime Minister Enrico Enrico Letta to promise a state funeral for the victims. The tragedy also sparked promises and pledges that Europe would do more to intervene in the life-and-death journey made annually by tens of thousands of migrants fleeing war and destitution and seeking better lives.

More than two weeks after the incident, however, even as another shipwreck in Mediterranean waters took scores more lives, there is a growing fear that little will change. In the absence of plans for a state funeral, the victims are being buried quietly and anonymously in a Sicilian cemetery. Immigration experts say they have little expectation that a European-wide policy overhaul is forthcoming.

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EU nations have deeply entrenched – and differing – opinions over who carries the burdens for migration. Many countries, like Italy, are slashing budgets even as more spending is being asked of member states. Confusion about legal and illegal migration, meanwhiles, is giving rise to anti-immigration sentiment that inhibits policymakers.

The European Union has pledged more money to help Italy, which is a front line for asylum seekers and economic migrants fleeing Arab Spring turmoil since 2011, most recently from Syria. The EU has also promised to increase patrolling in the Mediterranean.

“All member states are sympathetic to potential refugees, and the dangerous journeys they make. But alongside that is a reluctance to receive those migrants and asylum seekers in their own countries,” says Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe in Brussels. “Every country talks about burden sharing, but there are strong differences in what that means.”

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The Oct. 3 tragedy occurred after the engines failed on the 65-ft. ship traveling from the coast of Libya and crammed with some 500 migrants. According to press accounts, passengers lighted a fire to signal for help, but others panicked, running away from the blaze and causing the boat to capsize. More than 350 people died, many women and children.

The incident dominated the headlines in Italy and around Europe, driving political debates in Rome, galvanizing public opinion and official reaction and prompting Prime Minister Letta to promise a state burial during a visit to Lampedusa Oct. 9.

José Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, who visited the island along with Mr. Letta, pledged $30 million to Italy to tackle the problem: “The problem of one of our countries, Italy, must be perceived as a problem for all of us, for all of Europe."

That sentiment was echoed by French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Oct. 5, who said: “European political officials must talk, and soon.… It’s up to them to meet and find a solution; compassion is not enough."

But earlier this week, officials in Sicily began burying victims in a burial vault in Piano Gatta near the Sicilian city of Agrigento.

Underscoring the uninterrupted flow of migrants,  at least 34 people drowned on another ship last week when their boat overturned, according to the Italian Navy, though press reports said the high number of missing meant the death toll could ultimately be as high as 200 or more.

Migration patterns change as wars break out, economies shift, and countries crack down – much as is the case along the US-Mexico border. Five years ago, the most common route from Africa to Europe went from West Africa to Spain's Canary Islands. Tighter surveillance and patrols pushed those flows east to Italy, Greece, and Malta.

The economic crisis may have slowed down some economic migration, but civil conflict has kept up the flow. Some 30,000 have sought to make it to Italy this year to date, comprised mainly of Syrians, Eritreans, and Somalians. Smuggling groups continue to prey on those seeking refuge, says Bernd Leber, a migration analyst with proMig, a German consultancy that works with the EU. “It is a business,” he says.

Whether big trafficking networks or small-scale fishermen lured by lucrative alternative income, they have helped contribute to the deaths.

Pope Francis, speaking a day after the Lampedusa sinking, called for a “day of tears.” On an earlier visit to the island, he condemned the “globalization of indifference.”

“These were strong words,” says Fr. Giovanni La Manna, president of the Italian branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service, at his offices in Rome. He believes this could put more pressure on Italy and the EU to be accountable.

“The people are more sensitive now. They have more conscience and have more knowledge about the situation,” he says.

More border enforcement?

European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has called on more border enforcement by the EU agency Frontex, expanding its patrol and rescue area across the Mediterranean. To do so, EU member states will be asked to provide the equipment and personnel, no small request while many countries are tightening budgets.  Italy itself deployed additional drones and naval vessels following the Oct. 3 sinking to intercept migrant boats.

Most migrants end up, for geographical reasons, in southern Europe, which has blamed northern Europe for not doing enough to help them deal with the issue, especially as southern nations tend to be poorer and harder hit by the economic crisis.

Many northern countries counter that, while geographical pressure places immediate and spontaneous burdens on the south, it is countries like Sweden and Germany that offer the highest rates of asylum, even though EU rules dictate that asylum seekers must apply where they land.

Many asylum seekers don't want to remain in “crisis-hit southern countries,” Mr. Leber says. They are often given implicit encouragement by those countries that “just try to get rid of them.”

Long-term solutions are also clouded by far-right and populist groups. The most notable example is the extreme Greek political party Golden Dawn, whose xenophobic rhetoric has resonated as Greece has teetered on the edge of default. While public sentiment is far more sympathetic to asylum and legal migration in both Europe and the US, according to the 2013 German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Trends Survey, migrant statuses tend to get mixed up in political rhetoric.

“[Far-right groups] feed into overall political reluctance to be courageous and come up with policy issues to resolve the problem,” Ms. Collett says. “It reduces the political will.”

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