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IMMIGRATION

Italy rescues 400 migrants off Lampedusa

Italian coast guard and navy vessels on Wednesday rescued nearly 400 migrants on three boats ahead of a visit by Pope Francis next week to the tiny island of Lampedusa - a gateway for undocumented migrants and refugees into the European Union.

Italy rescues 400 migrants off Lampedusa
The number of arrivals to Lampedusa has trebled in the past year. Photo: Italian coast guard press office/AFP

The navy said in a statement it had found a boat carrying around 80 migrants and that there were no fatalities aboard, as had been reported earlier by a Tunisian fishing vessel which spotted them.

But it said that the condition of the boat was deemed "unstable" and its passengers, including 10 women and one child, were being taken on board a patrol boat and would be taken to Lampedusa.

Two coast guard vessels which had also been scrambled to the area will remain in position, amid an uptick in migrant arrivals in recent weeks.

A joint navy and coast guard operation earlier on Wednesday intercepted a boat carrying more than 200 migrants and two French journalists also off the
coast of Lampedusa, Italian media reported.

A total of 227 people were on board, including 41 women and four children. The rocky outcrop in the central Mediterranean Sea is a transit point for thousands of migrants into Europe, who often make perilous journeys on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies.

The arrivals on Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than to the Italian mainland, have increased drastically since the beginning of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011.

Hundreds have drowned or been suffocated in the often heavily overcrowded boats, often travelling without sufficient food and fuel on board.

Also on Wednesday, 65 migrants were rescued off the coast of Italy's southern Calabria region on a boat that was taking on water and risked sinking.

Pope Francis has said he wants to visit Lampedusa on Monday to pray for people who have lost their lives in the crossings and offer support to the local population, which has hosted the migrants.

Nearly 8,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the start of the year – double the number from last year over the same period. The highest number of
migrants — 3,648 people, or three times more than last year – landed on Lampedusa.

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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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