A group of more than 60 leaders from Africa and the European Union are meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Malta in an attempt to improve their response to the migration crisis that has sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to Europe this year.
The EU says the summit will focus on addressing the reasons why people are leaving their home countries, better organizing legal migration channels, boosting protections for migrants, battling smugglers and improving cooperation with African nations on returning people who do not qualify for asylum.
“Whether it be on visa facilitation, making the most of remittances for development or fighting smugglers together, this summit is about action, concrete and operational action,” European Council President Donald Tusk said Tuesday.
As part of the effort, Europe is offering $1.8 billion in new aid to African countries. But critics are questioning Europe’s response, saying the EU is trying to push people back to areas where there are serious questions about human rights and a lack of economic opportunities.
Tusk said that Europe needs to respect African sovereignty and have “great empathy” for its concerns.
About 800,000 people have crossed to Europe by sea this year, nearly four times the number who made the journey in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration. Italy and Greece are the most popular landing points. More people have landed in Italy from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan than anywhere else, making up half of the 140,000 migrants who have arrived there this year.
More than 3,400 people have died making dangerous sea crossings to Europe this year. At least 14 people drowned Wednesday after a boat sank Wednesday on a trip from northern Turkey to Greece.
The EU’s Malta-based European Asylum Support Office said Tuesday its asylum processing system is so clogged with migrants seeking refuge that it would take a year to process all pending applications even if no more arrived.
It also said almost one in three migrants has been waiting at least three months for applications to be processed, and said 200,000 applicants have been waiting six months or longer.
A lack of workers was another challenge, with the EASO saying it had received fewer than half the staff requested from EU countries to process asylum applications.
With anti-migrant sentiment growing on the continent, EU member Slovenia began Wednesday building a barbed wire fence on its border with Croatia. Prime Minister Miro Cerar said the country is not closing its borders, and that what he called “obstacles” were being put in place in order to direct migrants toward border crossings.