Brussels (AFP) - EU efforts to seal off Europe's borders to illegal migrants have also shut off access to refugees from conflict, thus putting their lives at risk, Amnesty International said Wednesday.
Forced to take to flimsy boats in perilous journeys across the high seas because land routes have been sealed, many die at sea, the rights group said in a report titled "The human cost of Fortress Europe."
"The effectiveness of EU measures to stem the flow of irregular migrants and refugees is, at best, questionable," said Amnesty's John Dalhuisen.
"Meanwhile, the cost in human lives and misery is incalculable and is being paid by some of the world’s most vulnerable people."
The report says the European Union spent nearly two billion euros protecting its external borders between 2007 and 2013, but only 700 million euros on improving the situation for asylum-seekers and refugees in the EU in the same period.
Refugees and migrants that do make it risk being pushed straight back, with the practice common in Bulgaria and Greece but also at the Spanish territory of Ceuta in North Africa.
Yet there are more displaced people today than at any time since the end of the Second World War and almost half of those trying to enter the EU irregularly are fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia.
Forced to resort to dangerous sea routes. hundreds die each year trying to reach Europe, such as the 400 who lost their lives off the Italian island of Lampedusa last year.
Though Italy has launched a search and rescue operation called "Mare Nostrum" which has rescued more than 50,000 people since October last year, in the first six months of 2014 more than 200 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
"The responsibility for the deaths of those trying to reach the EU is a collective responsibility," said Dalhuisen.
"Other EU member states can and must follow Italy’s lead and stop people drowning at sea."