SHARE
COPY LINK

IMMIGRATION

146 migrants feared missing after boat capsizes in Med

About 146 migrants are feared missing after their boat capsized after leaving Libya, according to a Gambian man who was rescued following the disaster, the United Nations' refugee agency said on Wednesday.

146 migrants feared missing after boat capsizes in Med
Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

The man was rescued by a Spanish military ship participating in the EU's “Operation Sophia” to crack down on smugglers, and then brought to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The vessel left on Sunday or Monday from Sabratha, western Libya, with five children and several pregnant women among those on board, the Gambian told a member of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who met him at a hospital in Lampedusa.

Most of the passengers were from Nigeria, Mali and The Gambia, he said.

He said that the boat began taking on water a few hours after setting off, and that he survived by holding on to a fuel can.

According to information gathered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the man was spotted almost by accident by the Spanish ship, which then transferred him to the Italian coastguard.

“It shows that there may very well be shipwrecks we don't know about, because the boats sink without a trace,” Flavio de Giacomo, an IOM spokesman, told AFP.

Since the beginning of this year, at least 590 migrants have died or gone missing along the Libyan coast, excluding this latest capsizing, the IOM estimates.

Migrants keep coming

Last week, the Spanish group Pro-Activa Open Arms discovered two empty and partially capsized dinghies, raising fears that hundreds of migrants could be missing, since smugglers often pack 120 to 140 people on such vessels, and often many more.

But these incidents are not included in the IOM's estimates, in particular as one of the vessels may have been one that capsized in Libyan waters shortly before then, in which 54 people were rescued but 66 were missing.

The dangers have not slowed the surge in arrivals this year, however: The Italian coastguard says it orchestrated the rescue of more than 1,100 migrants off Libya between Tuesday and Wednesday morning.

The coastguard is taking them to Sicily, which will bring the total number of arrivals to Italy this year to more than 24,000, a sharp increase from the same period last year.

Nongovernmental organisations say the increase reflects worsening living conditions in Libya as well as fears, whipped up by smugglers, that Europe will soon block off the Mediterranean passage for good.

Italy has been trying to bolster its cooperation with Libya to halt the people-smuggling operations by building camps to house migrants who are intercepted trying to reach Europe, and send them back to their countries.

The plan has riled rights groups, who see the potential for abuse in Libya and note that 40 percent of sub-Saharan migrants who apply for asylum in Italy are currently being accepted.

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.

SHOW COMMENTS