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IMMIGRATION

MSF refuses to sign on to new migrant rescue rules

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) refused Monday to sign a code of conduct on migrant-saving operations in the Mediterranean, while others including Save the Children approved the new rules.

MSF refuses to sign on to new migrant rescue rules
Photo: Carlo Hermann/AFP

“There were two sticking points that prevented us from signing the code,” said Tommaso Fabbri, head of MSF's Italy mission, after the charity took part in a meeting in Rome between the interior ministry and non-governmental organisations.

One was the obligation for rescue vessels to operate with an Italian police official on board, and the other was the ban on moving rescued migrants from one aid vessel to another at sea, which complicated missions, he said.

“We are doctors, not policemen,” Fabbri told AFP.

“We will continue to carry out rescue operations without changing anything,” he said, but added the organisation was “open to controls” by the Italian coastguard in the name of transparency.

The code, created to address the biggest migrant phenomenon in Europe since World War II, lays down 13 rules Rome insists must be followed to prevent aid groups rescuing migrants from acting as a magnet for human traffickers.

But the rules have been widely criticised by the NGOs as making it more difficult for them to save the lives of those attempting the perilous crossing from the shores of crisis-hit Libya to Europe.

The interior ministry said those who “refuse to agree and sign are excluded from the system of sea rescues”.

The German NGO Jugend Rettet, a privately-funded aid organisation which has been carrying out rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, also refused to sign.

“We would only sign if the new rules made our work more efficient and increased the security of our volunteers,” spokesman Titus Molkenbur told journalists at the close of the meeting in Rome.

'Restore climate of trust'

The new rules, which have been given a green light by Brussels, forbid NGOs from sailing into Libyan waters unless lives are at risk, or communicating with smugglers – including using lights that could attract traffickers.

Save the Children had signed up because its ship – the Vos Hestia – already operated according to most of the rules laid out in the code, the charity's director general Valerio Neri said in a statement.

He said the decision to agree to the code “was dictated by the desire to guarantee continuity for the rescue operations, in a transparent fashion, and restore a climate of trust and collaboration”.

The charity said it would “constantly monitor” the code's application “to make sure it does not hinder the efficacy of search and rescue operations at sea by NGOs”.

MOAS, the Maltese-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station, also rubber-stamped the rules “in solidarity with the government and the Italian people,” said founder Christopher Catrambon.

“Our mission has always been to save as many lives as possible at sea, and this document allows us to continue to do just that,” he said.

Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms sent a letter to Rome saying it was willing to sign the code, the ministry said.

Nearly 95,000 people have been brought to safety in Italy this year, a rise of one percent on the same period last year, according to the interior ministry.

The privately-funded aid boats performed 26 percent of the rescues carried out in 2016, rising to 35 percent so far this year.

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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