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IMMIGRATION

Hundreds of migrants rescued in major operation off Libya

More than 1,400 migrants seeking to get to Italy were rescued off the coast of Libya on Friday, but other vessels were in distress, according to accounts by Libyan and Italian officials.

Hundreds of migrants rescued in major operation off Libya
Of the 181,000 migrants who entered Italy last year, some 90 percent arrived via Libya. Photo: Giovanni Isolino/AFP

“Large rescue and interception operations are under way,” navy spokesman General Ayoub Qassem said. “Today is the day of a massive exodus of illegal migrants toward Europe.”

The Libyan coastguard, fishing and commercial boats were working in coordination with the Italian authorities, he said.

A Libyan oil tanker picked up 562 migrants, including dozens of women and children, and took them to Tripoli, a Libyan coastguard official said.

Another group of migrants, whose size was not given, were taken to Zawiya, 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the west, this source said.

In Rome, the Italian coastguard said it had sent several vessels and rerouted commercial ships to pick up 850 migrants.

However, three other boats laden with migrants were in distress.

More than 50,000 migrants have landed on Italian coasts since the beginning of this year, not counting those rescued in recent days, while more than 1,400 have drowned or are missing, according to UN figures.

Of the 181,000 migrants who entered Italy last year, some 90 percent arrived via Libya.

The North African country has long been a stepping stone for migrants seeking a better life in Europe.

Around 6,400 migrants were picked up on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, thousands of whom disembarked at ports in southern Italy on Friday.

At least 35 people drowned on Wednesday when a powerful wave struck their vessel, pitching them into the sea, as a rescue ship was distributing life jackets.

Smugglers have stepped up their lucrative business in the chaos which has engulfed Libya since its 2011 revolution.

Libya has urged Europe, and particularly Italy, to supply its coastguard with the equipment it says it needs to monitor its southern borders, through which migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan African, enter the country.

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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