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IMMIGRATION

‘Six thousand migrant arrivals is not an invasion’: Renzi

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Friday played down a spike in boat crossings from Libya which has resulted in 6,000 mainly African migrants landing in Italy this week, insisting: "we are not facing an invasion."

'Six thousand migrant arrivals is not an invasion': Renzi
More than 6,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since Tuesday. Photo: Giovanni Isolino/AFP

Renzi told a press conference after the figures were released by the International Organisation for Migration in Geneva that the numbers arriving from Libya so far this year were broadly in line with the 2015 pattern.
   
Fears are running high in Italy that the country could be confronted with a surge in migrants trying to reach its southern shores as a result of EU moves to close routes through the Greek Islands and the Balkans.
   
Italian officials are also wary of the possibility of neighbouring EU countries closing their borders, as France did temporarily last year and Austria is threatening to do now.
   
The interior ministry this week asked local authorities to find 15,000 extra beds to house asylum-seekers in anticipation of a possible increase in the numbers of people requiring accommodation.
   
“There is a problem that concerns our country but there is not an invasion underway,” Renzi said.

   
“We have taken certain initiatives but we are not facing an invasion. It is a big problem but we have clear ideas about how to deal with it.”
   
Renzi said the EU was working on deals with African countries to stem the flow of migrants leaving for Europe and to prevent those who do from being allowed to pass through transit countries.
   
“I do not want to play it down but I do want to send a reassuring message. The numbers of boats are barely a few higher compared to last year.”
   
The IOM said that of the 6,021 migrants who have reached Europe by sea since Tuesday, only 174 had landed in Greece with the balance coming ashore in Italy.
   
IOM spokesman Joel Millman stressed there was no evidence yet to suggest the Italy arrivals were linked to an EU-Turkey deal which aimed at stemming the influx of people to the Greek islands.

   
Migrants who spoke to IOM staff in Italy all said they had crossed from Libya, most of them on rubber dinghies loaded with around 130 people.
   
“Many of them were from sub-Saharan Africa, and we have noticed an increase in numbers from the Horn of Africa, particularly Eritreans,” Federico Soda, head of the IOM's Rome office, said in a statement.
   
“There have been very few Syrians leaving from Libya in recent months,” Soda said.
   
Millman noted that with weather warming at the start of the main crossing season, Italy would likely see persistently high arrivals in the weeks ahead.
   
So far this year, more than 23,000 migrants have landed in Italy, compared to nearly 153,500 who have landed in Greece, the IOM 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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