EU steps up war on people-traffickers in Mediterranean

Migrants at Lampedusa, 18 Feb 15 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Italy's tiny Lampedusa island is overcrowded with migrants

The EU police agency Europol has set up a new team to break people-smuggling gangs who send migrants on perilous voyages across the Mediterranean.

The maritime intelligence unit, called "JOT (Joint Operational Team) Mare", is based at Europol HQ in The Hague.

The UK and 12 other EU countries are involved. JOT Mare will help the EU border agency Frontex and national police to track and stop the gangs.

Italy and Malta have faced a surge of migrant boats heading for their shores.

The EU says the chaos in war-torn Libya has created fertile ground for the smuggling gangs to send dangerously overladen migrant boats towards Europe.

Mortality rate rises

More than 220,000 migrants entered Europe illegally in 2014, compared to 60,000 in 2013, the European Commission says.

There were more than 3,000 deaths of migrants at sea in 2014, and in 2015 there have already been more than 1,000.

"Doing more and better to counter smuggling is a priority for the European Commission and it will also be one of the main pillars of the European Agenda on Migration that we will adopt in May this year," EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos said.

In a statement welcoming the JOT Mare initiative, he said Frontex was currently monitoring several non-EU ports and about a dozen large vessels in the Mediterranean, "which might be used for smuggling migrants".

Besides the UK, the following countries are involved in the new Europol unit: Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

The scope of maritime patrols off Italian shores has been cut back since Italy ended its Mare Nostrum operation last November. It had focused on picking up migrants in distress after setting sail from Libya.

The EU now runs a border control operation called Triton, limited to European territorial waters, with fewer ships.

Gerald Hesztera, a Europol spokesman, told the BBC that national police forces would send specialists to work at JOT Mare for a year or more. They would remain on the national payroll while engaged with the EU team.

JOT Mare's main job is to collect and analyse intelligence on people-smugglers, he said. "We can co-ordinate and make the connections", to help national police operations, he said.