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IMMIGRATION

Spain, Portugal to take in most of Aquarius migrants

Spain and Portugal on Tuesday offered to take in most of the 141 migrants on board the Aquarius after it was given permission to dock in Malta, resolving a new standoff over the rescue ship.

Spain, Portugal to take in most of Aquarius migrants
Aquarius leaving the harbour of Marseille, southeastern France, on August 1, 2018. BORIS HORVAT / AFP

Madrid said it would accept 60 people, while Portugal offered to welcome 30, with the remainder distributed between France, Germany and Luxembourg, government sources in Malta and Spain said.

The boat was initially refused entry by Italy and Malta after rescuing the migrants in two separate missions off the Libyan coast on Friday. 

The Aquarius, which hit the headlines in June after being stranded with 630 migrants on board, causing a major diplomatic row, resumed its rescue operations off Libya last week.

Spain's new Socialist government helped resolve the first standoff by allowing the boat to dock in Valencia and was again at the forefront of the solution on Tuesday.

“Spain has coordinated a pioneering agreement with six countries to share the hosting of the people on the Aquarius… Spain will take 60 people,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez wrote on Twitter.

Malta confirmed afterwards it would allow the ship to dock to disembark its passengers, many of whom are unaccompanied children from violence-wracked Somalia and repressive Eritrea.

“Malta will be making a concession allowing the vessel to enter its ports, despite having no legal obligation to do so,” said a government statement posted on Twitter.

European attitudes hardening

After elections in March that brought a populist, anti-immigrant government to power in Italy, new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini began turning away rescue ships operated by foreign NGOs.

For years, Italy had pleaded with its EU partners for help with a massive influx of arrivals that has seen 700,000 people land in the country since 2013, most of whom had made the short but treacherous sea crossing from Libya.

On Saturday, Salvini said the Aquarius would “never see an Italian port” again, accusing it of encouraging smugglers and migrants to take to the water in the knowledge that they will be rescued.

The Italian coast guard continues to rescue migrants, however. 

Malta's government had initially defended its decision to turn the Aquarius away, saying it was “neither the coordinating nor the competent authority for such a rescue” and had “no legal obligation” to provide a place of safety.

The government of Gibraltar also announced late Monday that the ship would no longer be allowed to operate under its maritime flag; it was registered on the British overseas territory in 2009.

The increasingly hostile stance reflects hardening public opinion in Europe towards migrants following the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war or poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

The Aquarius has become a symbol of the unwillingness of many European countries to accept more newcomers, with Italy siding with conservative governments in eastern Europe intent on keeping out migrants.

France's President Emmanuel Macron was criticised by leftwing opponents in June for failing to offer the migrants safe haven, despite it being the next closest location to the boat after Italy and Malta. 

France ended up taking in 78 of the migrants after they landed in Spain.

French public opinion was against accepting the Aquarius during the first crisis and the rightwing Republicans party and far-right National Rally both argued on Tuesday against allowing the boat to dock.

A spokesman for the National Rally suggested the ship should head for a port in Tunisia.

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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