Italy holds migrant rescue ship as hundreds land

Italian authorities held a migrant rescue boat for 12 hours after it brought more than 230 people to a port in south western Italy following a four-day ordeal on the high seas, an NGO said on Sunday.

Italy holds migrant rescue ship as hundreds land
Migrants rescued by Sea-Watch 3 in November 2017. Photo: Alessio Paduano/AFP

German NGO Sea-Watch said in a statement that their boat Sea-Watch 3 was held until gone midnight on Saturday after arriving at the port at Reggio Calabria with 232 people onboard.

Italian police questioned the boat captain for more than four hours, according to the NGO, and journalists travelling on the vessel were asked to hand over video footage of the rescue operation, which took place on June 5th.

“The political attacks against us are not only endangering us, but those in maritime distress,” the NGO tweeted. “After 12 hours stuck in port, without a comprehensible reason given by the authorities, while there were 6 SAR-Cases on the Mediterranean Sea, we finally set sails to SAR.”

SAR stands for search and rescue operations.

Sea-Watch said police also questioned some of the rescued migrants from the boat. After being processed by the authorities they are likely to end up in migrant reception centres.

The holding of the boat comes after Italy's new anti-immigrant government pledged to slow down landings and speed up expulsions of migrants illegally in the country.

“If anyone thinks I won't move a muscle while we have another summer of landings, landings and more landings, well that's not what i'm going to do,” said new Interior Minster Matteo Salvini from the far-right League party on Saturday.

Sea-Watch said it had requested help from the coastguard in Malta to send boats to aid the rescue mission last week but Malta refused.

Salvini has previously lambasted neighbouring Malta for not doing more to help deal with would-be asylum seekers — a charge Malta has denied.

While Sea-Watch 3 was being held in Reggio Calabria, fellow NGO SOS Mediterranee rescued 629 people in six separate night-time operations in the Mediterranean.

The French organisation said that of those saved and brought on board its ship Aquarius on Saturday night, 123 are unaccompanied minors, 11 are small children and seven are pregnant women.

They are currently heading north in search of a secure port at which to dock. 


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.