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IMMIGRATION

Italy migrant levels down 34 percent in 2017: Frontex

The number of migrants who arrived in Italy in 2017 was 34 percent down on 2016, according to figures published on Friday by the EU border agency, Frontex.

Italy migrant levels down 34 percent in 2017: Frontex
The number of migrants arriving by sea fell 34 percent in 2017. Photo: Abdullah ElgamoudiAFP

Around 119,000 people arrived by sea in 2017 compared to 181,126 a year earlier, taking the number back to pre-2014 levels, the agency said.

The downward trend began in July following a 20 percent spike in arrivals between January and June. Some 10,400 landed at Italy's ports during the last three days of June alone, prompting the country to introduce controversial measures after EU neighbours refused to share the burden.

As a result of the measures, which included clamping down on NGO rescue ships and boosting the Libyan coastguard’s ability to intercept boats, arrivals dropped by 70 percent in the second half of the year.

There have also been moves to tighten Libya's southern borders, accelerate repatriations directly from Libya and measures to stem the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa through transit states such as Niger and Sudan.

However, harrowing accounts emerged of desperate migrants throwing themselves overboard in order to avoid being sent back to the chaos in Libya.

Migrants intercepted or rescued by the Libyans are usually held in detention centres to await repatriation, but waiting times are often long and conditions deplorable.

International outrage over the situation was stoked in November by a CNN television report on migrant Africans being sold as slaves in Libya.

It got to the point that the EU's decision to help Libya intercept migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean and return them to detention centres was condemned as “inhuman” by the United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of asylum seekers languish in large shelters in Italy, feeding into the mutual distrust of surrounding neighbourhoods.

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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