First asylum seekers leave Italy under EU plan

UPDATED: A small group of Eritreans left Italy for Sweden on Friday, the first contingent of asylum-seekers to be relocated under a European Union scheme to ease the burden of the migration crisis on frontline countries.

First asylum seekers leave Italy under EU plan
A group of Eritrean refugees prepare to board a plane to travel to Sweden as part of a new programme of the EU to relocate refugees. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Grinning shyly before the media, 19 young Eritreans shook hands with EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and waved as they boarded a financial police plane at Rome's Ciampino airport.

“Today is an important day for the European Union, it is a day of victory… for those who believe in Europe, for those who believed in saving human lives,” Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told journalists after the departure.

“It is a defeat for those who claim it is better for the Mediterranean to become a lake of death… and believe that scaring the European people is the way forward,” he added.

The asylum seekers are being transferred to Sweden after it agreed on July 20th to take refugees from Italy and Greece in a bid to ease the humanitarian and financial burden on the two frontline states over two years.

They will fly to Luleå in northern Sweden, after which they will hand in their applications for asylum at a centre in Boden, according to a press release from Sweden's Migration Agency. The refugees – 14 men and five women – will then be offered a spot at a centre for refugees in the Östersund area in Sweden's Jämtland region.

Swedish Migration Minister Morgan Johansson welcomed that the scheme was being implemented for the first time on Friday at an EU summit in Luxembourg on Thursday.

“This is the first example of this issue of redistribution that we have fought for so much, to make sure that we are all prepared to accept our part of the responsibility,” he was quoted by the Swedish TT news agency as telling fellow ministers.

“Symbolically, it's very important. (…) It is important now that all countries live up to what we have actually promised each other. We break the ice and make sure that the implementation begins,” he said.

The EU formally agreed on the plan last month despite the opposition of some eastern European states worried about a popular backlash to migrants.

'More must be done'

Alfano said Italy was ready to relocate 100 more asylum-seekers who would go to Germany and the Netherlands, and the UNHCR said further relocations would take place from Italy at the beginning of next week.

“This is a significant day, a positive and important one,” the UN refugee agency's southern Europe spokeswoman, Carlotta Sami, told AFP.

“But we know more must be done. There is a great need for measures to be put in place to allow (asylum-seekers) to arrive in Europe safely,” she said, referring to perilous boat crossings in the Mediterranean which have cost over 3,000 people their lives this year alone.

The Eritreans had been rescued on the high seas over the past few weeks and taken to an experimental migrant screening centre or “hotspot” on Lampedusa island, where they were registered.

Avramopoulos and Asselborn were expected to travel to the Italian island later Friday to examine the centre, a prototype for several set to open at the end of November across Italy and Greece.

On Thursday, EU nations agreed to speed up the deportation of failed asylum seekers and crack down on so-called “economic migrants” – who are largely from poor African nations and not refugees from conflict zones.

A UN report in June detailed how the Horn of Africa nation, under Isaias Afwerki's iron-fisted regime for the past 22 years, has created a repressive system in which people are routinely arrested on a whim, detained, tortured, killed or disappeared.

The EU hopes the closed centres will sharply reducing the number of people who arrive by boat, refuse to be identified and head off across the borders to other bloc countries to seek a new life.

The centres and relocations are part of a multi-point plan which includes a military anti-people trafficker operation.

The UN's Security Council is set to vote Friday on a draft resolution to authorise military action against smugglers with Operation Sophia, which launched this week to seize traffickers' boats in international waters.

While the vote is not necessary for the EU to take action, the measure would legitimise plans under which European warships will board ships for inspection, confiscate them and even dispose of vessels used by migrant smugglers.


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.