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IMMIGRATION

Pope’s refugee families settle into Roman life

With Italian lessons and strolls around Rome, the 12 Syrian asylum seekers Pope Francis brought back with him from Lesbos are settling into new lives, their hosts said on Monday.

Pope's refugee families settle into Roman life
Pope Francis welcomes a group of Syrian refugees after landing at Ciampino airport in Rome. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The three Muslim families are being housed temporarily by the Saint'Egidio religious community in the Rome district of Trastevere while they await longer-term accommodation being prepared for them in the Vatican, community spokesman Maximiliano Signifredi told AFP.

“Yesterday they had their first Italian lessons. They have been going for walks around Trastevere, a new life is opening up in front of them,” Signifredi said.

“Each of the three families has been assigned a small flat with everything they need while they are awaiting the more spacious apartments the Vatican is getting ready for them.”

In a dramatic gesture designed to highlight the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on the southern shores of Europe, Francis on Sunday flew back from Lesbos with the 12 Syrians.

The three couples, who have six children between them, were plucked from a detention camp on the Greek island to start new lives, more than 1,400 miles (nearly 2,300 kilometres) from their homes in Damascus and Deir Ezzor, a city in eastern Syria controlled by the Islamic State group.

Francis said on the plane back from Lesbos that the families had been chosen out of some 3,000 people at the camp simply because their paperwork was sufficiently in order to rapidly conclude an accord on their transfer with the Greek and Italian governments.

“I didn't make a choice between Christians and Muslims. All refugees are children of God,” Francis told reporters.

The families are expected to seek asylum in Italy rather than through the tiny Vatican city state.

One of the Syrians, a 51-year-old teacher from Deir Ezzor, has said the families, who had planned to try and get to Germany via Greece, do not know what awaits them.

“We don't know whether we will start over in Europe or whether, one day, we will be able to return to a Syria free of war and violence,” the teacher, identified only as Ramy, told Italian media at the weekend.

The Vatican was already housing two Syrian families in line with Francis's instruction to every Catholic parish in Europe to take in at least one.

The St Egidio community is very active on migration issues and has organized flights to Rome for dozens of Syrian refugees who are housed in the same building as the families brought back by the Pope.

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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