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UN

EU sea patrol ‘woefully inadequate’: UN

The UN refugee agency on Thursday urged the European Union to do far more to save migrant lives in the Mediterranean, saying its existing maritime border patrol is "woefully inadequate."

EU sea patrol 'woefully inadequate': UN
A man on February 11th lays flowers on the coffins of immigrants who died trying to reach the Italian coast. Photo: Marcello Paternostro/AFP

UNHCR issued the strongly-worded statement after more than 300 migrants were feared drowned this week when their overcrowded dinghies sank, the latest boat tragedy in a perilous crossing from Africa to Europe.

"UNCHR is today calling on the European Union to urgently change its approach to dealing with sea crossings with a view to ensuring that saving lives is the top-most priority," it said.

The latest deaths have highlighted the limited means and scope of Triton, an EU-run mission which took over in November from the Italian navy's Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation.

READ MORE: 300 feared drowned trying to reach Italy

Photo by HO/Italian Navy/AFP

Italy decided to scale back the mission after its EU partners refused to share running costs of around €9 million a month. Triton, which comes under the authority of the EU borders agency Frontex, has a monthly budget of €2.9 million and its patrols are generally restricted to the territorial waters of EU member states.

"There can be no doubt left after this week's events that Europe's Operation Triton is a woefully inadequate replacement for Italy's Mare Nostrum," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. "The focus has to be about saving lives. We need a robust search and rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean, not only a border patrol."

Guterres said he is concerned that Europe is planning to phase out rather than step up its rescue efforts in response to the growing boat disasters.

UNHCR said at least 3,500 people lost their lives last year out of more than 218,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean, making it the most deadly route in the world.

The surge in migrants is a result of wars, conflicts and poverty in Syria, the Horn of Africa and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

SEE ALSO: The seamen battling a tide of human misery

Photo by Fillipo Monteforte/AFP

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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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