Arab, Berber and African refugees from multiple crises of political instability, hunger and war in Africa and eastern Mediterranean have pitted Europe against a familiar dilemma but with greater intensity requiring urgent action.
EU officials have always acted tough to bar potential migrants from outside its 28-strong sphere of member countries of divergent cultures and income levels, some in Eastern Europe marginally better off than non-EU nations in North Africa and eastern Mediterranean.
But conflict in Syria, political turmoil in Egypt and the security crisis in Libya and west Africa after the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi have all produced new waves of humanitarian challenges. Few if any of the new refugees can be barred as economic migrants and most have harrowing stories to tell of deprivation in battle zones.
How many refugees can EU member countries absorb or will accept? That key question remains unclear as popular sentiment continues to generate sympathy for people seeking to enter EU borders from troubled south and the southeast.
That sentiment may not last long, analysts say, and EU will soon have to cope with rising right-wing sentiment against the refugees and the practical question of funding new arrivals indefinitely.
This week the European Commission called for a wider patrolling of the Mediterranean waters to intercept migrant boats. EU vessels already patrol the sea but wider operations are planned. EU's initiative followed the deaths of at least 274 migrants whose boat sank off Italy's Lampedusa island.
Parallel to that effort is a less publicized EU initiative to encourage neighboring African and Mediterranean states to discourage migrants and to fund governments that help deter migrants from entering Europe.
That project is less publicized because European diplomats involved with negotiations see effective checks on potential migrants as a greater priority than concerns about how non-EU governments treat potential migrants. Advocacy groups say potential migrants intercepted by African or Arab border police will be at risk of mistreatment or harsher punishment.
Despite those criticisms, EU officials have called for EU's Frontex border agency to cast its net wider and cover the whole of the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain with regular sea patrols. But the agency is in a financial crisis after its annual budget was from about $160 million to about $100 million.
EU wants to extend an existing partnership with Morocco to other North African states to ensure migrants are prevented from taking flimsy boats to EU borders north of the Mediterranean. Under the partnership deal, Morocco is obliged to prevent migrants from leaving for Europe.
Critics say an extension of the border partnership to Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and other countries may not be foolproof. Analysts have also scoffed at plans for wider patrols, arguing the sight of EU ships will encourage more boat arrivals.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, at least 30,100 migrants reached Italy on boats from North Africa, the U.N. High Commission High Commissioner for Refugees reported. Most of those were fleeing conflicts in Syria, Eritrea and Somalia.
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