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IMMIGRATION

Row over migrant beds as boat arrivals intensify

Italy's interior ministry has ordered regional prefects to find emergency housing for an influx of boat migrants, sparking criticism on Tuesday over the government's handling of a crisis that looks set to intensify.

Row over migrant beds as boat arrivals intensify
Migrants wait at the port of Lampedusa in February 2015. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

A surge in attempted illegal crossings from the coast of north Africa saw nearly 8,500 migrants rescued between Friday and Monday, reigniting a debate in Italy over whether or not the country has a duty to house all new arrivals.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is "looking for another 6,500 beds for immigrants," said Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant Northern League, which has made the crisis one of its platforms ahead of regional elections in May.

"I ask the League's governors, mayors, assessors and councillors to say no, with every means, to every new arrival. The League is ready to occupy every hotel, hostel, school or barracks intended for the alleged refugees," Salvini said on Facebook on Tuesday.

The interior ministry had on Monday called on Piedmont, Lombardy, the Veneto, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Campania regions to find 700 places each for the latest arrivals.

Puglia in southern Italy was told to find 300 places, while the Lazio and Marche regions were asked for another 250 each, with the remaining 1,500 beds to be divided between other regions.

Members of the opposition have accused Renzi's centre-left government of pandering to those fleeing war zones or poverty, with many saying the policy of rescuing immigrants at sea encourages others to attempt the journey.

"It is an absolute disgrace that the government, instead of repelling the invasion of clandestine immigrants, thinks to appropriate thousands and thousands of beds, giving in to the invasion," said senator Maurizio Gasparri from the centre-right Forza Italia party.

Boats 'should be sunk'

And with summer approaching and over 500,000 people waiting to set out from Libya for Europe according to EU border agency Frontex, charity organizations are warning the government is not prepared to deal with the next wave.

Some 10,500 people have been plucked from boats since the beginning of April, with 20,500 people arriving in total so far this year. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 500 people have died at sea.

Italy's coast guard said that 2,851 people had been picked up from boats on Monday alone.

Forza Italia head Giorgia Meloni said the boats setting off from north Africa to Italy "should be stopped as they leave," while those used by smugglers to escape "should be sunk".

Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The majority of immigrant arrivals have no desire to stay in Italy and quickly journey on towards northern Europe.

According to the UN's refugee agency, in 2014 the number of people fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq who applied for asylum in wealthy countries was the highest in 22 years.

While Germany received the most applications, with 173,000 requests, Italy ranked behind the United States, Turkey and Sweden with 63,660 requests.

The country has a publicly-funded network of reception centres housing some 30,000 people, according to the Migrantes Foundation.

But due to severe overcrowding the extra beds are likely to be found in converted hotels, hostels, old people's homes and holiday residences which apply to take part in a state-funded hospitality scheme.

The government gives hundreds of structures across Italy €30 a day per migrant, with €2.50 going towards pocket money and the rest earmarked for bed, board and services such as legal assistance with applying for asylum.

Critics have said this hospitality business, which at the end of 2014 housed over 32,300 migrants according to the interior ministry, is worth around €1 million a day and attracts profiteers and organized crime.

Catholic associations like Caritas are putting roofs over the heads of another 20,000 immigrants, Migrantes Foundation director Giancarlo Perego said, adding that the government's preparations were "absolutely insufficient."

"It's not tolerable for a municipality to be able to decide whether or not to take in an asylum seeker. It would be like deciding whether or not to support an old person who is not self-sufficient or an unaccompanied minor," he said.

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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