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REFUGEE CRISIS

IMMIGRATION

Syrian baby and five-year-old dead in migrant boat tragedy

Two Syrian girls, one of them an eight-month-old baby, are among up to six people who died when a boat carrying would-be migrants to Europe capsized off Libya Thursday, rescuers said.

Syrian baby and five-year-old dead in migrant boat tragedy
Twenty-seven percent of all migrant arrivals to Europe in the first six months of this year were minors. Photo: AFP

Five bodies were recovered and one passenger was missing, presumed drowned, following the capsize on Thursday.

Some of the 21 survivors told aid workers there had been 27 people from eight Syrian families on the boat.

The Phoenix, a rescue boat run by the Malta-based NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station (Moas) and the Italian Red Cross (CRI), recovered the corpses of two women, one man and the baby while the five-year-old's body was picked up by a fishing boat, the organisations said.

Details of the tragedy emerged as the world's attention has been re-focused on the crisis in Syria by this week's poignant pictures of the bloodied, dust-covered face of four-year-old Omran following the bombing of his home in the war-torn city of Aleppo.

Moas co-founder Regina Catrambone said the latest deaths were a tragic reminder that hundreds of migrant children continue to perish at sea a year after toddler Aylan Kurdi's body was washed ashore on a Turkish beach last year.

'Very sad and frustrating'

“It is very sad and frustrating to witness the tragic loss of life at sea, especially that of such a young child,” she said.

“It is time for the international community to come to terms with this reality and to implement safe and legal solutions for the most vulnerable among us to avail themselves of the rights and protections they are entitled to.”

Children represent a growing proportion of the migrants trying to reach Europe by sea from Turkey and North Africa – 27 percent of all arrivals in the first six months of this year were minors, according to the UN refugee agency.

Italy's coastguard said the five deaths occurred on a day when they supervised the rescue of 534 people in 11 different operations off Libya.

Nearly 100,000 migrants have landed at Italian ports this year, roughly in line with the level of arrivals in the same period in 2015. Numbers arriving in Greece have dropped sharply since an EU-Turkey deal in March that is aimed at stemming the flow.

More than 3,000 people have died trying to reach Greece or Italy since the start of the year, a 50 percent rise on last year.

It is relatively rare for Syrians to try to reach Italy via Libya. Over 90 percent of the migrants arriving on Italian shores this year have come from sub-Saharan Africa.

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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