Italian coast guards rescue 700 migrants as EU leaders promise action

Story highlights

  • "Determined action should be taken" to "prevent the loss of lives at sea," say EU leaders
  • EU leaders have discussed the issue of migration at a summit in Brussels
  • 697 people from five migrant boats needed to be rescued overnight
  • The Italian island of Lampedusa is a common destination for migrants sailing from Africa

Italian coast guards rescued nearly 700 people in five separate operations overnight around the island of Lampedusa, they said Friday.

News of the rescue operations came as European Union leaders were meeting in Brussels, Belgium, for a summit at which the issue of migration was high on the agenda.

The deaths of more than 300 African migrants in a shipwreck off Lampedusa on October 3 shocked Italy and the world, and led to calls for EU lawmakers to review their migration policies.

The European Council meeting was largely overshadowed by controversy over claims the United States has been spying on its European allies.

Migrants appear undeterred, even after deadly shipwrecks

But in a statement of its conclusions, the EU leaders expressed "deep sadness" over the recent migrant deaths in the Mediterranean and pledged action to tackle the issue.

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Lampedusa: Refugees' gateway to Europe
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"Based on the imperative of prevention and protection and guided by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, determined action should be taken in order to prevent the loss of lives at sea and to avoid that such human tragedies happen again," it said.

The EU leaders said they would work with migrants' countries of origin and international organizations such as the U.N. refugee agency to try to address the root causes of migration.

They also called for "the fight against trafficking and smuggling of human beings to be stepped up" in the European Union and countries that migrants originate from or pass through.

The European Union is setting up a new border surveillance system and Mediterranean task force to bolster its efforts and will review its asylum immigration policies next summer, it said.

Read more: Mediterranean 'becoming immigrants' cemetery'

Because of its location as the closest Italian island to Africa, Lampedusa is a frequent destination for African refugees seeking to enter European Union countries, and shipwrecks off its shores are common.

But despite the dangers, migrants keep on coming. Within days of the October 3 sinking, another 34 people died when their boat capsized. Hundreds more have been rescued from often unseaworthy vessels.

Many of the migrants are from African nations, while others have fled war-torn Syria, officials say.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has called for an international process to consider refugees' medical needs and asylum requests and help them settle in Europe or elsewhere.

The Italian coast guards said Friday they led the rescue of four boats with 219, 201, 95, and 91 people on board, and helped with a Maltese rescue of another vessel carrying 91 people -- a total of 697 people.

Read more: Lampedusa - Why tough penalties won't work