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IMMIGRATION

Italy defiant as migrant ship stranded in Mediterranean

Italy defiantly declared on Saturday that its ports were closed to foreign-flagged rescue ships as German charity vessel Lifeline lay off the coast of Malta in limbo with more than 230 migrants aboard.

Italy defiant as migrant ship stranded in Mediterranean
Matteo Salvini speaks during the Italian talk show "Porta a Porta" on Wednesday as a picture of migrants is seen in the background. Photo: Andreas Solaro / AFP
Malta — which is also refusing to take in the boat in a new diplomatic standoff with Italy — nevertheless said it had sent in humanitarian supplies.  
 
“The Lifeline, an illegal ship with 239 immigrants on board is in Maltese waters,” Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini wrote on Facebook. “These boats can forget about reaching Italy, I want to stop the business of trafficking and mafia.”
 
Salvini's tough talk came on the eve of an emergency mini-summit in Brussels to address the divisive issue of how the EU can tackle the renewed influx of migrants and refugees seeking a new life in Europe.
 
Just three weeks in office, Italy's new populist government is digging its heels in on campaign promises to stop the influx of migrants, threatening to seize rescue ships or barring them from its ports.
 
The crisis has also caused ructions in Germany, with Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a rebellion from her coalition allies over her policies.
 
Meanwhile, more than 400 migrants were rescued in three operations off the coast of Spain on Saturday, just days after Madrid took in the more than 600 rejected by Italy and Malta. And the Libyan navy said five people died and nearly 200 were rescued off its coast while trying to cross the Mediterranean.   
 
Threat to seize boats
 
The Italian government has said both the Lifeline, run by German NGO Mission Lifeline, and another ship Seefuchs, run by another German charity Sea-Eye, — would be seized and directed to Italian ports for investigation “into their legal status”. 
 
Rome accuses the Lifeline of having acted in contravention of international law by taking on board migrants while the Libyan coastguard was intervening. 
 
Earlier this month Salvini triggered an EU-wide row when he barred the French charity-run Aquarius rescue ship, carrying 630 migrants, from docking in Italy. Malta also refused to take it in and the ship was later welcomed by Spain. 
 
Salvini said on Friday that Malta should open its ports to the Lifeline, adding: “Clearly, the boat should immediately be impounded and its crew arrested.”
 
But Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the Lifeline “broke rules” by ignoring Italy's directions and should move towards its original destination “to prevent escalation”.
 
“Despite having no responsibility Malta just provided humanitarian supplies” while its armed forces carried out the medical evacuation of one passenger, he said.
 
As the two neighbours squabbled, a Danish cargo ship carrying 113 migrants was stationed near the Sicilian port of Pozzallo waiting for instructions from Italy. The Alexander Maersk changed course after picking up a distress call 
Friday, a spokesman for Maersk Line said, without specifying where the migrtants were rescued.
 
'Awaiting diplomatic solution' 
 
Mission Lifeline denied Italy's accusations regarding the rescue in Libyan waters, saying it was the best equipped vessel to help.
 
“We are waiting for a diplomatic solution, discussions are underway between different states to host the Lifeline and those rescued,” the organisation's representative in Germany, Axel Steier, told AFP, adding that 14 women and four children were among those on board.
 
The issue of migration was thrust to the forefront of the EU agenda after Italy turned away the Aquarius. But the Aquarius defiantly vowed to continue its work and an AFP photographer on board said Saturday that it was currently responding to distress call in Tunisian waters.
 
 EU tensions  
 
Italy's hardline stance comes at a time of deep EU tensions on immigration. Sunday's mini-summit is supposed to prepare for a full summit next week, where 28 EU leaders will discuss plans to overhaul the bloc's asylum system, which has been under severe pressure since the migration crisis exploded in 2015.
 
Merkel — facing a ferocious political backlash for letting in over one million asylum seekers into Europe's biggest economy — played down expectations of a quick solution.
 
“We know that no solution will be reached on Thursday and Friday at the level of the 28 member states… on the overall issue of migration,” she said on a visit to Lebanon. Instead, she said, “bilateral, trilateral and multilateral” deals must be 
reached to tackle the issue.
 
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer warned Monday he would give Merkel a fortnight to find a European deal to curb new arrivals, failing which he vowed to order border police to turn back migrants.
 
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis also said on Friday he was ready to start turning away migrants if Berlin and Vienna did so.
 
By AFP's Lucy Adler
 

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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