MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The European Union is struggling to cope with thousands of people trying to reach Europe by land and sea. Today, EU officials unveiled a plan they hope will stop migrants entrusting their lives to traffickers and offer a safe and legal alternative for refugees. Critics say the plan will only encourage more to set off across the Mediterranean for European shores. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This video footage from the Italian Navy shows migrants being rescued from rickety boats. Children are passed overhead while corpses float in the water. At least 1,800 people have died this year trying to reach Europe fleeing war, dictatorship and poverty in places like Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. Today, the European Commission presented a plan to deal with the immediate migrant emergency and long-term immigration. The EU's foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, identified the plan's priorities in Brussels today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FEDERICA MOGHERINI: Saving lives, first of all, taking care of the lives we save, sharing responsibility to protect the people we save, and fighting the traffickers and smuggler's organizations.
BEARDSLEY: Only a handful of European countries are handling the vast majority of migrants. Southern countries on the front line - Italy, Greece and Spain - are overwhelmed by migrants arriving by boat. Germany and Sweden have taken in the bulk of asylum seekers. The EU's executive arm is proposing that the other EU countries share the burden according to their size and wealth. Pierre Henri, head of French asylum rights group Terre dâAsile, says that's exactly what's needed.
PIERRE HENRY: (Through interpreter) For two years, we've been asking EU countries to work in solidarity to confront this issue. You can't do it alone, but this will put Europe to the test because there are populists in many countries who refuse to take migrants.
BEARDSLEY: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has called the resettlement proposal indecent. British Interior Minister Theresa May said her country would take no part in the quota scheme. French parliamentarian Eric Ciotti says the policy is dangerous and naive.
ERIC CIOTTI: (Through interpreter) If we say no matter where you land, you'll be welcomed somewhere in Europe, more and more people will come. We should be fighting to keep them from reaching Europe. We should be destroying the traffickers.
BEARDSLEY: The EU plan would provide funding and naval support to the EU's border agency, Frontex, to identify, capture and destroy smuggler's boats, and there will be better intelligence sharing to help break up trafficking networks. European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans says the way Europe handles the migrant crisis now will impact the debate over immigration in the years to come.
FRANS TIMMERMANS: The biggest gift we can give to populists and extremists who argue against immigration is to allow a broken system to remain broken.
BEARDSLEY: Timmermans says the rules can work if they're applied properly. The plan, he says, will streamline country's asylum procedures and create a much quicker processing time.
TIMMERMANS: Our citizens must have confidence that we will offer help to those who are persecuted for fleeing war, but also that we effectively register and manage those who arrive and return those who do not qualify for asylum.
BEARDSLEY: Under EU Treaty rules, Britain, Ireland and Denmark already have the right to opt out of the plan to share the migration burden. It's not clear how many other EU leaders will give the proposal their support when they meet to discuss it at the end of this month. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.