Six migrants drown, 100 rescued off Sicily

The Italian coastguard found Saturday the dead bodies of six clandestine migrants on a tourist beach in Sicily while nearly 100 others, thought to be Syrians and some Egyptians, were rescued in the latest desperate attempt to reach Europe.

Six migrants drown, 100 rescued off Sicily
This picture shows the MV Salamis tanker (C) carrying 102 migrants rescued from a leaking dinghy arrives at Syracuse, in Sicily after being turned away by Malta. AFP Photo / Guardia di Finanza

"We were alerted just after 5:30 am (0330 GMT) that a boat had run aground across from a beach resort" near the island's second largest city Catania, said spokesman for the port authority Roberto D'Arrigo.

"Most of the migrants jumped into the water" when they saw the coastline, he said.

The bodies of two of the dead migrants were found on the beach while "four other bodies were recovered" by rescuers around the boat, as they apparently did not know how to swim and drowned, authorities said.

A three-year-old child suffering from dehydration and a pregnant woman have been hospitalized.

D'Arrigo said that all the passengers were young adults and one of the deceased was a teenager.

Most of the passengers were on the shore when authorities arrived at the scene, he said, indicating a total of "91 migrants, Syrians and Egyptians" had been saved and were currently being identified by authorities.

Earlier investigators had said the 18-metre-long (59-feet) boat was carrying around 120 people.

Dario Monteforte, owner of the Lido Verde which alerted authorities, told Sky TG24 television that he "saw a crowd of youths on the beach running toward the road".

Monteforte, visibly shaken, has closed his establishment for the weekend.

"Something has to be done. This is really an unending tragedy," he said of the plight of thousands of clandestine migrants in rickety boats who seek to reach Italian shores each year.

According to D'Arrigo, it was "totally unusual" for migrants to land on a beach in Catania as "normally they arrive further south in the region of Syracuse", or else at the extreme southern point of Sicily or the island of Lampedusa.

Another group of about 100 migrants, mostly Syrian families, were rescued overnight Wednesday off the coast of Calabria on the Italian mainland.

They had left Syria two weeks earlier and had to change boats several times before being left adrift aboard an 11-metre (35-foot) vessel.

The conflict in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people since it erupted in March 2011 and millions more have been displaced or fled the country, according to the United Nations.

Improved weather and calmer waters have seen a spike in boat people arrivals in Italy in recent days.

But shipwrecks are frequent because the boats are often old and overloaded.

Human traffickers regularly abandon their passengers when Italian or Maltese coastguards spot them.

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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.