Dubai: European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem has said the EU border agency Frontex should deploy a vast maritime search-and-rescue operation from Cyprus to Spain to try and stem the flood of asylum-seekers from north Africa and Syria trying to reach Europe.

But experts say stepped-up security at sea could leave thousands of migrants stranded in north Africa at the mercy of militias and traffickers and reinforce a “Fortress Europe” mentality.

Experts also say it will be difficult to persuade EU governments to finance a major patrol or agree to a European border control, particularly in recession-hit countries or where anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise.

“Search and rescue is good in principle, but it touches on sensitivities over relinquishing control of national waters,” Elizabeth Collett, director of Brussels-based think tank Migration Policy Institute Europe, said.

Collett said that beyond scaled-up patrols, Europe needed to address the more complex issues of dismantling smuggling rings and deterring people from attempting the perilous crossings.

Professor Alessandra Venturini from the European University Institute Migration Policy Centre said the priority was to “stop people dying at sea”.

“Centres at transit points in Turkey and Egypt where people can make asylum requests could help reduce the numbers attempting to enter the EU illegally,” she said.

Italy also wants a change in asylum laws that currently mean all asylum-seekers must stay in the European country where they first arrive while their application is considered.

Southern European countries like Italy argue this puts an unfair burden on them as the landing points, but northern European states argue they end up taking in most of the refugees.

—Compiled from agencies