Madam President, Honourable Members of Parliament.
About six weeks ago. Aicha, a 17-year-old teenage girl from Ivory Coast got into a small boat.
With 58 others. Off the coast of Mauritania.
She had only told her sister of her dream, to go to Europe.
The European dream became a nightmare.
On the second day in the boat the water ran out. And the food.
On the fourth day the petrol.
Soon people started to scream for water.
The only thing to drink, was sea water.
And then people started to die.
At first Aicha said prayers for the dead. After a while, there were no more prayers. Not even the strength, to put the dead bodies overboard.
We can only imagine the fear and terror as water and food ran out and one by one people died. The growing despair as time went by without land or ship in sight.
They stayed in that trauma for three weeks, until only three were left alive – barely, too weak to stand. When after three weeks at sea, on 26 April, a Spanish aircraft spotted the boat. 500 kilometres from land. And sent a helicopter to rescue Aicha. From what has been called “a mass grave in the middle of the sea”.
This is a tragedy. A European tragedy.
Like the nightmare experienced around the same time by 130 men, women and children. In a small rubber boat in six metre high waves in the Mediterranean. A European tragedy, with 130 people losing their lives.
Yesterday, at least 6,000 people from Morocco reached the city of Ceuta, a very substantial number of them children. The flow of these irregular arrivals continues as we speak. Many of them have been saved and one person died. I will come back to that at the end.
This is why we need to do everything to save lives. To prevent these extremely dangerous journeys. And why we need our New Pact on Migration and Asylum. To manage migration, to save people’s lives, to show solidarity with people in need. And with the countries concerned.
Like the 24 boats with 2100 people who arrived in Lampedusa last week in just two days. Out of these people at least 600 unaccompanied minors. I call on Member States to help these people. And the people being saved from the waves right now. To support Italy and to help with relocations. My services are reaching out to Member States as we speak. And I thank Ireland for being the first, to offer help.
Over 600 people died in the Mediterranean this year. We must fight the smugglers, who have blood on their hands.
They are organised criminals who take advantage, on an industrial scale, of vulnerable people in a pandemic.
Who deceive people with promises of easy entry to Europe. With lies about safe and comfortable crossings in big boats.
Who charge 3000 euro for a crossing. A life saving or a crippling loan.
And after cashing in, put 130 people into a small rubber boat in stormy weather. Or teenagers like Aicha onto a small boat on the Atlantic with little water and petrol. Knowing fully well, they won’t stand a chance.
Who beat people into the rubber boats if they don’t want to go.
Law enforcement supported by Europol is successfully disrupting smuggling networks in Europe, arresting criminals and pressing charges for murder.
But we must do more.
To stop the smugglers who took advantage of Aicha’s dreams. To stop the criminals who put her life at risk. We need to work with countries of origin, transit and departure. That has been my priority from day one.
The EU will support partners to crack down on smuggling.
To build capacity to manage migration and protect people in need.
Over the last year, I’ve forged a strong political commitment to fight smuggling, manage migration and help desperate people.
I will now intensify my political dialogue with third countries. After visiting Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia last year. In the coming weeks and months, I will further strengthen ties with North African partners. This week, I will go to Tunisia again.
And soon, I will present my Action Plan against Migrant Smuggling. To:
- Strengthen operational cooperation.
- Counter “digital smuggling.”
- Go after the money – the 200 million euro in criminal profits migrant smugglers make.
- Protect the rights and lives of smuggled victims like Aicha.
- All in all, to build strong anti-smuggling partnerships with countries of origin and transit: including border management, joint investigations and awareness-raising campaigns on risks of smuggling.
But fighting smugglers is not enough. We must ask ourselves why a teenage girl like Aicha sees no other choice but to get into a small dangerous boat.
We must give better perspectives, especially to young people. By creating economic opportunities and investing in jobs at home.
And we must provide alternatives for people with dreams, skills and talent. Safe and legal pathways to Europe.
I will organise a high-level event in June to launch Talent Partnerships to support mobility and migration for labour and training.
I will continue to invest in resettlement and other safe legal pathways to Europe for people in need of protection. Soon, I will organise a high-level forum on Resettlement.
Europe needs skilled people – of all levels. Yesterday evening, we made an agreement on a Blue Card, and that sends a strong signal that we welcome labour migration. And shows that Europe can agree on migration
I admire the Spanish officers who saved Aicha. Who dropped down from the helicopter. Focused on rescuing the living. Who said there are things you can’t train for. Who see themselves not as heroes, but public servants.
And who are now on their next mission. As are many of their colleagues who are saving lives all over Europe.
Saving lives at sea is a moral duty and a legal obligation. We need to streamline our operational cooperation to ensure a fast response at sea. We need to speed up disembarkations.
Search and rescue is primarily a national responsibility. But the Commission does have a political responsibility. And we’re taking this responsibility.
Last September I presented a Recommendation calling for a stronger cooperation on Search and Rescue.
In March I set up the new European Contact Group on Search and Rescue. Bringing together Member States and Schengen countries. And all relevant parties, including NGOs and our Agencies.
To help shape a common approach to search and rescue.
Finally, we have proposed a tailor-made binding mechanism on solidarity for Search and Rescue cases. It is crucial now to agree on the Pact.
Aicha cried when she saw the helicopter.
After 10 days in hospital. Corporal Juan Carlos Serrano, who saved her from the water invited Aicha to meet his family.
They welcomed Aicha with a big hug.
Offered to help her and invited her to stay.
And she says “it feels like I have found my family”.
Summer is coming.
There will be more stories like Aicha’s.
We need to work together. To fight smugglers. To save lives at sea. To get an agreement on the pact.
And as a society we must see people like Aicha with the same eyes as Juan Carlos Serrano.
A human being, like you and I who needs our help and support.
Before I finish, let me conclude on the unprecedented irregular arrivals to the city of Ceuta from Morocco since yesterday, which continue as we speak. It is worrying that at least 6,000 people, a big number of them children, have been swimming to Ceuta. Putting their life in danger. Many had to be rescued. One person died.
The most important thing now is that Morocco continues to commit to prevent irregular departures and that those that do not have the right to stay are orderly and effectively returned.
Spanish borders are European borders. The European Union wants to build a relationship with Morocco, based on trust and shared commitments. Migration is a key element in this regard.
I am following this very closely together with the High Representative / Vice President Borrell, Commissioner Várhelyi and of course with the Spanish authorities.