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IMMIGRATION

What rules apply to migrants rescued at sea?

In the standoff between Italy and Malta over a migrant ship stranded in the Mediterranean, both have insisted on their right to refuse a vessel entry to their ports.

What rules apply to migrants rescued at sea?
Photo: Karpov/SOS Mediterranee/AFP

Although Spain offered safe harbour to the boat and the 629 migrants on board, the episode has raised questions about a country's legal obligations towards those rescued at sea.

Here are a few key questions.

Are the rules clear?

Generally speaking, no.

“International maritime law does not provide for specific obligations which would determine in all cases which state is responsible to allow disembarkation on its territory,” the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says.

But that does not mean a country can simply hold up a stop sign and wash its hands of the situation when a vessel packed with vulnerable migrants approaches its shores. UNHCR also pointed to “key treaties” stating that a nation which has responsibility for an area in which a search-and-rescue operation takes place is required to “exercise primary responsibility” for coordinating the migrants' safe disembarkation.

READ ALSO: Spain, not Italy, will take in stranded migrants 'to avoid catastrophe'


Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP

The International Organization for Migration also said that while states are not forced to accept specific vessels, there is a collective duty to ensure a humane outcome.

“Regarding disembarkation, states are obliged to cooperate to find a safe place to disembark migrants rescued in their search and rescue area,” IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle told AFP, citing legal experts.

What if there's an emergency on board?

This could arguably compel a state to grant access to its ports.

“If the country has control over the ship and there are migrants in dire straights aboard and no agreement with another state to take them can be found, they should not delay but accept them,” Doyle said.

In the case of the Aquarius, which is operated by SOS Méditerranée, UNHCR said that the dwindling provisions on board created “an urgent humanitarian imperative” for Italy and Malta to allow the boat to dock.

Spain's intervention later appeared to defuse the crisis. 

What happens after the migrants disembark?

In an apparent attempt to justify Rome's stance, far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said Italy's new populist government could not be forced to turn the country into “a huge refugee camp”.

But UNHCR said letting a boat dock did not mean a country would have to take long-term responsibility for those on board.

“A state which allows disembarkation on its territory of rescued persons – particularly in situations involving large numbers of people – need not, in UNHCR's view, be solely responsible for providing durable solutions on its own territory.” 

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Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/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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