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IMMIGRANT

Immigrants at sea: Why Italy must do more

With 1,000 immigrants crammed into a detention centre fit for 300 on the Italian island of Lampedusa, The Local looks at who bears responsibility for people arriving at the gateway to Europe.

Immigrants at sea: Why Italy must do more
Immigrants at a detention centre in Lampedusa. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

“It’s at the point of collapse,” says Valeria Carlini, spokeswoman for the Italian Council for Refugees (CIR), of the situation in Lampedusa. “They spend at least six months there and there is no maximum time."

The sheer number of arrivals – more than 900 over last weekend alone – has put a huge strain on the island's local population of just 4,500 and the Italian government.

A total of 4,319 migrants landed in Italy during the first five months of this year, according to recent figures from Italy's Interior Ministry. During the same period, 13,304 were reported to have been repatriated

Lampedusa’s proximity to north Africa, around 100km away, has made it a hub for immigrants arriving by boat. Some seek asylum while many come in search of work in Italy or beyond in other EU countries.

Despite many immigrants making the journey with eyes on other parts of Europe, Carlini says those landing in Italy are the responsibility of the country's government.

“Italy is part of the EU, but the responsibility lies with the Italian government and the Ministry of Interior,” she says. The government has an “uncoordinated, huge internal structure” to deal with immigrants, which is "far from fully functioning", Carlini adds.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, thousands of people landed in Lampedusa after fleeing instability in north Africa and the onset of war in Libya. In March 2011, 3,000 people were sleeping rough or at the docks. As frustration simmered, migrants staying at one of the overcrowded centres set the building on fire in protest.

The new wave of immigrants led to a spat within the EU, with France temporarily going against Schengen principles by closing part of its border with Italy.

The president of Amnesty International Italy, Antonio Marcesi, tells The Local the EU is well aware that it should do more to support Italy. He adds that patrolling the southern borders of Europe is an EU-wide issue.

“Successive Italian governments have complained that they are left alone to deal with this, which is true to a certain extent,” he says. “[But] we are a big and developed country; cooperation from EU institutions would be welcome but it’s not an excuse for abuses."

The debate over responsibility rages on land and at sea, as each country with Mediterranean shores must assist boats in need within their waters.

Italy has in the past gone out of its way to help people in Libyan waters, says Judith Sunderland, a Milan-based researcher at Human Rights Watch. However, she says there are annual spats between Italy and Malta over rescues: “They don’t want to have responsibility for them after the rescue; the main concern is that there are people whose lives are at risk.”

In 2011 a boat was left adrift in the Mediterranean for two weeks; only nine of the 72 people who embarked on the journey from Libya survived.

Sunderland says that in addition to governments saving people at sea, private shipowners also have a duty. “One of the issues is the disincentive to private vessels, like fishing trawlers, to rescue people, because it delays their work and they’re reluctant to take on that responsibility.”

In 2004 a ship captain and two others were arrested in Sicily for aiding and abetting illegal immigration after a sea rescue. They were later acquitted, although the case may have deterred private ship owners from carrying out similar rescues.

On Sunday seven immigrants drowned after they tried to cross the Mediterranean by clinging onto a fishing cage towed by a trawler. AFP reported survivors as saying the trawler crew cut the line and pushed the victims back to sea when they tried to climb on board the vessel.

“There should be a full investigation because it’s horrifying to imagine that anyone could have taken the conscious decision to cut the line and condemn people to a watery death,” Sunderland adds.

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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