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IMMIGRATION

UN defends migrant rescue groups after Italian accusations of trafficking links

The UN refugee agency sprang to the defence Sunday of aid groups that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean, some of which have come under fire in Italy for alleged complicity with Libyan people smugglers.

UN defends migrant rescue groups after Italian accusations of trafficking links
The United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi. Photo: Steffi Loos/AFP

An Italian prosecutor said last month that charity boats were colluding with traffickers off Libya, in what EU border agency Frontex described as tantamount to providing a “taxi” service to Europe.

But UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi paid tribute to the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in comments about Mediterranean crossings over the weekend.

“The tireless efforts of the Italian Coast Guard, in coordination with Frontex .. and of NGOs are truly remarkable,” he said in a statement.

“Together, they have saved tens of thousands of lives. In 2016, NGOs rescued more than 46,000 people in the central Mediterranean, representing over 26 percent of all rescue operations. This trend continues, reaching 33 percent since the beginning of the year.”

Some 6,000 migrants were rescued over Friday and Saturday in the Mediterranean in some 40 operations coordinated from Rome by Italian coastguards, as well as by several NGOs.

But these groups, in particular SOS Mediterranee and Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), have been for some days the target of criticism from prosecutors and politicians in Italy.

NGOs have all dismissed suggestions of de facto collusion with smugglers as a baseless slur on volunteer crews whose only mission is to save lives in the absence of EU governments acting effectively to do so.

The number of people leaving Libya in the hope of starting a new life in Europe is up nearly 50 percent this year compared with the opening months of 2016.

With most departures coming in the warm summer months, the trend points to around 250,000 people arriving over the course of 2017. Some 500,000 migrants were registered in Italy in the three years spanning 2014-16.

READ ALSO: The changing face of the Mediterranean migrant crisisThe changing face of the Mediterranean migrant crisisPhoto: Andreas Solaro/AFP

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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