Sixty missing in new migrant shipwreck

Around 60 migrants are missing in waters off Libya, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Wednesday after interviewing survivors who were picked up from their stricken craft.

Sixty missing in new migrant shipwreck
98,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the start of the year. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

An Italian corvette picked up dozens of migrants from a sinking rubber dinghy on Tuesday after the vessel was spotted by a naval helicopter.

While those who run into trouble during the perilous Mediterranean crossing usually send distress calls to the Italian coast guard, this time rescue workers had heard nothing and it was only due to chance that the patrol helicopter spotted the craft.

“We can say how many people arrive but we never know how many set off. It's rarer now because of the number of ships in the area, but it's sure there are shipwrecks no-one knows about,” IOM spokesman for Italy Flavio Di Giacomo told AFP.

Fifty-four people plucked from the water were brought to the Italian island of Lampedusa, but according to testimony from survivors, the craft had set off with between 117 and 120 people on board, all of them from sub-Saharan Africa.

Over 30 of the passengers were women, fewer than half of whom survived according to the testimony. One of those aboard saw her sister drown.

Two other migrants were rescued by helicopter, winched to safety after they were spotted near the dinghy, clutching a water butt to stay afloat.

According to the latest IOM figures compiled Wednesday, over 101,700 migrants have arrived in Italy by boat since the start of the year, while more than 2,040 others died in their bid to cross.

The official tally provided by the interior ministry showed that by the end of last month, 93,542 people had arrived – slightly up on the 87,915 people who arrived during the same period in 2014.

Rough seas off Libya were slowing departures slightly, however, easing the pace of rescue operations launched by the Italian coast guard and European border agency.


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.