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IMMIGRATION

One dead as 1,000 migrants rescued off Libya

One woman was found dead while aid groups said on Sunday around 1,000 migrants were rescued overnight off the Libyan coast, the latest victim among growing numbers seeking to reach Europe.

One dead as 1,000 migrants rescued off Libya
More than 22,000 migrants have been picked up since the turn of the year. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee said the dead woman was found on one of several rudimentary vessels carrying would-be refugees, helped during a six-hour operation.

Two rescue ships picked up the migrants as they sought to make the perilous journey to Italy, three days after more than 250 Africans were feared drowned off Libya after a rescue boat found five corpses close to two sinking rubber dinghies.

Despite rough winter seas, migrant departures from Libya on boats chartered by people traffickers have accelerated in recent months from already-record levels, with patrol boats rescuing more than 6,000 people in the past week alone.

More than 22,000 have been picked up since the turn of the year, as aid groups cite worsening living conditions for migrants in Libya and also fears the sea route to Europe could soon be closed to traffickers.

Prior to Thursday's discovery, the UN estimated at least 440 migrants had died trying to make the crossing to Italy since the start of 2017, based on bodies recovered and testimonies from survivors of shipwrecks.

But nobody knows how many people have drowned without trace.

Around half a million migrants, most from Africa, shrugged off the dangers of making the voyage to make it to Italy between late 2013 and the end of last year.

Last year, around 180,000 made it, an annual rise of 18 percent.

Italy's interior ministry forecasts its overstretched facilities for asylum seekers will have to accommodate about another 250,000 this year, despite Rome beefing up cooperation with Libya, its former colony, to try to tackle the problem.

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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