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Europe's urgent task of saving migrants

A rapid rise in migrants trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean – with many not making it – requires the EU to overhaul its immigration policies and anti-migrant fears.

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    Rescued migrants wait to disembark from an Italian Coast Guard ship in Palermo, Sicily, southern Italy April 14. The European Union says that more than 7,000 migrants have been plucked from the Mediterranean since Friday as an unprecedented wave of people flee conflict and poverty seeking better lives in Europe.
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Europe was given a vivid reminder this week of why it must come to a consensus soon on a better immigration policy. Nearly 400 people, mainly Africans, drowned in the Mediterranean when their vessel capsized after setting off from Libya for Italy. It was the worst such incident since 2013 and marks the sharp rise in such sea fatalities so far in 2015 compared with last year’s toll, which itself set a record.

More African and Middle Eastern migrants are flowing through Libya ever since Europe and the United States ended the regime of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The North African country remains in chaos. At the same time, anti-immigrant sentiments are rising in Europe with the popularity of right-wing parties. And among other decisions to be made, the European Union is conflicted over whether its rescue efforts on the Mediterranean actually lure more migrants into taking the risk of relying on criminal smugglers and on rickety boats to attempt a dangerous crossing.

The EU plans a new immigration policy in May, one that may move its sea interdiction closer to African shores or return to a more robust naval presence. Politicians are under domestic pressure to be tough on migrants even as the numbers increase. Almost 280,000 people entered the EU illegally last year, a 138 percent rise over the previous year.

Europe should shift its approach to immigration to be more positive, such as bringing in more immigrants legally as low-skilled workers to pay for the rising costs of its aging population. About 1 in 5 people in Western Europe is now over age 65.

“Migration is too often viewed as a problem and there is a risk that immigration policies in many countries will be shaped by fears and misconceptions rather than facts,” states Laura Thompson, deputy director general of the International Organization for Migration.

In a recent survey of 140 countries by Gallup, only Europe had a majority of people in favor of reducing immigration. In some of its countries, people overestimate the number of immigrants by three times. And contrary to a common perception, one study found emigration from Europe contributed to wage decreases while immigration had a favorable effect.

Europe’s immigration dilemma is not an easy one to solve. The world now has the highest number of people displaced by conflict since World War II, mainly in Africa and the Middle East – right on Europe’s doorstep. The EU could also do more to settle Libya’s political turmoil, which it helped create.

The first step, however, is dealing with an outsize fear of migrants. Then the solutions might be easier.

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