Ship of Syrians stopped en route to Italy

The Turkish coastguard intercepted in Mediterranean waters a ship carrying 333 mainly Syrian migrants bound for Europe, thought to be headed to Italy, the official Anatolia news agency said on Monday.

Ship of Syrians stopped en route to Italy
Syrians on board the Ezadeen ship, which was intercepted by Italian authorities last month. Photo: Alfonso Di Vincenzo/AFP

In an operation employing over 300 coastguard personnel, the coastguard captured the commercial vessel in open water off the Turkish port of Mersin in the northeastern Mediterranean close to Syria.

It said that the migrants – the vast majority of whom are Syrian – were taken back to Mersin after the overnight Sunday to Monday operation. Four Turks and 11 Syrians suspected of people smuggling have been detained over the incident, Anatolia added.

Mersin has in recent months become known as an increasingly important hub for Syrian migrants in search of a better life in the European Union, with people smugglers increasingly turning to larger vessels to transport them.

In this case the vessel was the 88-metre Togo-flagged commercial vessel Burcin which was raided by the authorities after the coastguard received a tip-off about migrants on board. The ship, which reportedly was bound for Italy, has been taken back to Mersin.

Reports said that the people-smugglers had transferred the migrants to the Burcin from smaller boats, one of which tried to escape and was later apprehended by the authorities.

SEE ALSO: EU told to step up for ghost boat migrants

There has been increasing attention on the use of large ships by people traffickers after the Italian authorities intercepted two vessels crammed with migrants and abandoned by their crew in the last month.

The Moldovan-flagged Blue Sky M cargo ship with 768 Syrian migrants on board was intercepted by Italian naval officers who boarded the vessel just eight kilometres before it would have run aground. It had departed from Mersin.

The Italian navy took control of the Sierra Leone-flagged vessel Ezadeen after it was left to drift in stormy seas.

Turkey, which already hosts 1.7 million Syrian refugees from the civil war, had become a key transit point for migrants seeking a better life in Europe.

According to local authorities in Mersin, 1,754 illegal migrants were apprehended at sea off the port last year.


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.