More migrants arrive as backlash gathers force

Italy's financial and customs police said on Wednesday they had rescued 98 starving migrants who had been drifting in the Mediterranean for two days without food or water.

More migrants arrive as backlash gathers force
Rescued migrants wait to disembark off the Italian Guardia Costiera vessel Fiorillo at the Sicilian harbour of Catania, on April 24th, 2015. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

The asylum seekers picked up overnight by the Monte Cimone patrol boat off Sicily had been at sea for a total of 12 days in a 50-metre boat.

It was unclear whether the migrants had crewed the boat themselves before it lost power and began taking on water, or whether they had been abandoned by people smugglers.

Among those on board were 35 women including three who were pregnant.

A group of around 30 Syrians meanwhile made it to the coast of the southern region of Puglia, apparently under their own steam on board a clapped-out boat described as unsuitable for getting out of a harbour far less crossing the Mediterranean.

The latest dramatic chapters in what is becoming a humanitarian saga were played out against a backdrop of signs that a backlash against Italy's acceptance of thousands of migrants washing up on its shores is gathering force, particularly in the north of the country.

Authorities in the mountainous region of Val d'Aosta on the border with France said on Wednesday they would not accept a batch of 79 people allocated to them by the Interior Ministry as part of efforts to spread the burden of processing new arrivals.

Regional president Augusto Rollandin said it was "absolutely impossible" for the region to find adequate lodging for the new arrivals as its one, 62-bed reception centre was already full.

The region's stance left the centre-left government in Rome facing a tricky dilemma over whether to force the migrants onto the region at the risk of inflaming passions over the issue, or back down with the risk that other regions will follow suit.

Growing impatience

Italy's refugee-reception facilities are stretched to breaking point with 80,000 people currently being housed in them and local authorities are growing increasingly impatient with the demands placed upon them.

Earlier this year, authorities in Rome were forced to move a group of several dozen migrants out of a reception centre for their own safety following months of attacks by residents in the rundown Tor Sapienza district of the capital.

In the large northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, politicians of the influential and virulently anti-immigrant Northern League have threatened to refuse to house any of the asylum seekers but authorities have so far continued to go along with the government's requests.

Italy's coastguard said it had rescued a total of 650 migrants on Tuesday and a total of over 1,700 were landed at various ports on Wednesday as a consequence of what was one of the busiest weekends on record for rescues in the waters off Libya.

Maltese-registered container ship "Kreta" berthed at La Spezia on the Italian Riviera with 400 migrants who had been given emergency food and water supplies by the Sardinian port of Olbia en route in what local authorities portrayed as a display of human solidarity.


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.