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IMMIGRATION

France, Germany, Malta will take 50 rescued migrants each: Italian PM

Germany said Sunday it had agreed with Italy to take in 50 of the 450 migrants aboard two EU border agency vessels, matching similar pledges by France and Malta.

France, Germany, Malta will take 50 rescued migrants each: Italian PM
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Photo: AFP

“France and Malta will respectively take 50 migrants each… other countries will follow very quickly,” Conte said on his Facebook page on Saturday.

A German government spokeswoman later said in a statement that “Germany and Italy have agreed that, in view of the ongoing talks on intensified bilateral cooperation on asylum policy, Germany is ready to take in 50 people”.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte confirmed the deal on Sunday, writing on Facebook that 150 of the 450 migrants had now been accepted and the rest would soon be fairly distributed among other EU countries.

“This is the solidarity and responsibility we have always asked from Europe and now, after the results obtained at the last European Council, it is starting to become reality,” Conte said.

“Let's continue on this path with firmness and respect for human rights.”

Italy has since Saturday requested that its EU peers take some of the migrants stranded aboard the Frontex ships off the Italian coast.

Earlier, Italy and Malta had been at loggerheads again over whose responsibility it was to offer the 450 migrants on board the two EU Frontex vessels a safe harbour.

Conte said he had spent the day in contact with his 27 EU peers, reminding them that they had agreed at their end-June summit on the need to share the burden of dealing with the migrant influx.

In a letter addressed to European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and EU President Donald Tusk, Conte demanded others should help and not leave Italy in the lurch.

“In this context which always sees Italy in the frontline of saving lives at sea, I ask you for a clear sign on sharing the responsibility of managing the migrant issue and to envisage the possibility of a port taking in, or to take charge of some of the 450 migrants picked up,” he said.

There was no immediate confirmation from the French.

The migrants, like thousands of others, had set sail from Libya in a single wooden vessel which was identified early Friday while passing through waters under Malta's jurisdiction.

But Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has authority over the country's ports, on Friday refused to let them dock in the latest demonstration of his no-go stance on accepting more migrants.

Salvini insisted instead that the two Frontex vessels be instructed to “head south, to Libya or Malta”.

“We need an act of justice, of respect and of courage to fight against these human traffickers and generate a European intervention,” he said in talks with Conte, according to reports carried by Italian news agencies.

Cited by the Italian media, cabinet sources said Conte was going to push for them to be immediately transferred to other European countries, otherwise they would not be allowed to land.

In an exchange of messages, emails and phone calls on Friday, Rome had pushed Valletta to take responsibility for those on board the wooden boat.

But Malta said the ship was much closer to the Italian island of Lampedusa, and on Saturday, insisted it had respected “all of its obligations under international conventions” concerning those rescued at sea.

On Saturday morning, as the two Frontex vessels approached the boat, several migrants threw themselves overboard, prompting immediate efforts to rescue them from the water, Italian sources said.

Eight women and children were taken to Lampedusa for medical treatment.

The latest standoff came just hours after 67 migrants were allowed to disembark from an Italian coast guard ship in Sicily late on Thursday.

Salvini, who took office when Italy's new populist government came to power on June 1st, wants to block any further migrant arrivals by boat and has banned NGO rescue ships from docking in Italian ports, accusing them of aiding human traffickers.

Last month, the French rescue ship Aquarius and the German boat Lifeline, who between them were carrying hundreds of migrants, were forced to divert to Spain and Malta respectively after Italy turned them away.

Italy, Greece and Spain have been on the front line of the migrant crisis, with Europe deeply divided over how to share the burden of the massive influx of people seeking a new life in Europe.

Separately, Spanish rescuers saved more than 340 migrants in the Mediterranean on Saturday.

READ ALSO: New row brewing between Italy and Malta over migrant arrivals

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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