‘Open legal routes to refugees’: Malmström

As EU ministers met on Tuesday to discuss how to help Italy deal with thousands of boat migrants, the European Commission said the refusal of member states to be flexible on asylum requests was fuelling the crisis.

'Open legal routes to refugees': Malmström
Children rescued off the Italian coast in October 2013. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

"We must open legal routes to allow refugees to come to the European Union, otherwise they resort to illegal immigration channels," Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said ahead of a meeting of EU interior ministers in Milan.

"For the moment, the refugees have a very limited means of access to the European Union: through resettling. There is no other way," she said.

Malmström suggested creating humanitarian visas or dealing with asylum requests at consulates in refugee camps and at points along migrants' journeys, such as the routes taken from Syria to Libya or Egypt.

"But those proposals have not gone down very well," she said. 

Sweden's minister for migration and asylum policy, Tobias Billström, said he would "like someone to explain what a humanitarian visa is".    

"We have the resettlement programmes. All member states must participate, as Sweden and Germany do. Only 13 member states have this type of programme, while 15 have nothing," he said.

The resettlement programmes were set up by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to allow member states – on a voluntary basis – to agree to take in a certain number of people that the agency believes can no longer live in refugee camps.

"The countries neighbouring Syria currently look after three million refugees, and fewer than 100,000 of them have been relocated to the EU's 28 countries. That is not very many," Malmström said.

Asylum rules are very strict in the EU, where requests must be made in the country of entry. Once the registration process has begun – with the digital recording of fingerprints in particular – it is difficult for refugees to request asylum in another country.

Traffickers 'making a fortune'

While thousands arrive on Italy's coasts each year, many do not want to remain in the country and are forced to place themselves in the hands of traffickers to try to reach the European country of their choice.

The flow of migrants fleeing war zones and setting out from Libya to Italy, or from Turkey to Greece or Bulgaria, has sparked tensions within the EU.

But the deaths of hundreds of boat migrants during their voyages across the Mediterranean in recent tragedies has thrust the issue into the the public eye.

Border countries such as Italy complain they are being abandoned by their European partners to deal with the massive influx of people, while the northern countries insist they have their own migrants to deal with.

"When we look at the figures for arrivals in Italy, and compare them to the number of people who stay, there is a big difference. We have to talk about that," German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.

Sweden has accused the Italian authorities of letting refugees slip through the net without registration, so that they can be dealt with by another country, and Billström described as "a big problem" the fact that "many of those arriving in Italy want to go to Sweden and Germany."

While the ministers praised Italy for its "Mare Nostrum" ("Our Sea") operation – set up after nearly 400 migrants drowned last year off the island of Lampedusa last year – there have been complaints that the rescue mission actually encourages boats to set off.

"The traffickers know that the boats will be recovered [by the Italian navy], and are making a fortune" out of the refugees, a European official told AFP.

The number of migrant arrivals to Italy this year has now soared past the record 63,000 set in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings, with an average of 270 people being plucked off overcrowded boast each day.

Italy has called on the EU to help with "Mare Nostrum" by providing funds and resources, and the Milan meeting should determine whether they are ready to do just that.

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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.