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IMMIGRATION

Some 6,500 migrants rescued off Libya: coastguard

Around 6,500 migrants were rescued off the coast of Libya on Monday, the Italian coastguard said, in one of its busiest days of life-saving in recent years.

Some 6,500 migrants rescued off Libya: coastguard
Handout photo from Italy's Red Cross after a rescue operation by Moas on August 15th. Photo: Yara Nardi/AFP

Dramatic images of one operation showed about 700 migrants crammed onto a fishing boat, with some of them jumping off the vessel in life jackets and swimming towards rescuers.

A five-day-old baby was among those rescued along with other infants and was airlifted to an Italian hospital, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which took part in operations.

“The command centre coordinated 40 rescue operations” that included vessels from Italy, humanitarian organisations as well as the EU's border agency Frontex, saving 6,500 migrants, the coastguard wrote on Twitter.

“We've been particularly busy today,” a spokesman for the Italian coastguard told AFP.

On Sunday more than 1,100 migrants were rescued in the same area.

The total number of arrivals in Italy this year now stands at 112,500, according to the UN's refugee agency and the coastguard, slightly below the 116,000 recorded by the same point in 2015.

Almost all of those migrants originate from West Africa and the Horn of Africa, often departing from Libya en masse when the sea is calm and a southern wind can push boats up into international waters.

Such days often come one after another, leading to large numbers of boats over a short period. More than 13,000 people were rescued in under a week at the end of May, and 8,300 more at the start of August.

The Italian coastguard predicted that weather conditions would encourage the departure of further migrant boats Tuesday.

The vessels are often flimsy and overcrowded while some of the migrants set off in such poor health that even if the crossing is calm they cannot survive a day at sea.

There are around a dozen vessels run by humanitarian groups that patrol the waters off the Libyan coast, but tensions in the zone have flared recently as rival factions battle to control migrant trafficking.

This month an MSF ship taking part in migrant rescue operations came under attack from armed men who shot at the vessel before briefly climbing aboard, the medical charity said.

Nobody was hurt in the incident, which took place on August 17th, the group said.

More than 3,000 migrants have died at sea while trying to reach either Greece or Italy since the start of this year, an increase of some 50 percent on the same period in 2015.

Some 204,000 others crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in the first six months of this year, the UN refugee agency said, as the continent battles its worst migration crisis since Second World War.

Last year more than one million migrants made the journey to Europe, with the majority fleeing war in Syria and the Middle East.

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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