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IMMIGRATION

Rescued migrants face Christmas at sea after Italy closes ports

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said on Saturday Italian ports were closed to hundreds of migrants rescued off Libya after a mother and newborn baby were evacuated to Malta.

Rescued migrants face Christmas at sea after Italy closes ports
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister and deputy PM Matteo Salvini. Photo: AFP.

The anti-immigration minister said that the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms had asked to allow the men, women, children and babies rescued on Friday to disembark in Italy after Malta turned them away.

“My answer is clear: Italian ports are closed!” Salvini tweeted. “For the traffickers of human beings and for those who help them, the fun is over.”

The NGO said a Maltese coastguard helicopter had taken a woman and her baby born on a Libyan beach three days ago who were among those rescued at sea.
”We continue with 311 people on board, without port and in need of supplies,” the NGO tweeted.

Proactiva Open Arms said on Friday that it had rescued more than 300 migrants from three vessels in difficulty, including men, women — some of them pregnant — children and babies.

The NGO posted a video of some of those rescued “from a certain death at sea. If you could feel the cold in the images, it would be easier to understand the emergency. No port to disembark and Malta's refusal to give us food. This isn't Christmas.”

The vessel started patrolling the Mediterranean with two other boats run by migrant aid groups off the Libyan coast in late November.

This area of the Mediterranean has been the most deadly for migrants attempting the crossing to Europe.

More than 1,300 migrants have perished trying to reach Italy or Malta since the beginning of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Aid groups have been sending rescue vessels into these waters despite vocal opposition from Salvini.

Accusing the groups of acting as a “taxi service” for migrants, he has denied them access to Italy's ports. Malta too has been increasingly unwilling to host rescue vessels.

Another aid group meanwhile, Sea-Eye from Germany, announced Friday that one of its vessels was setting off from the southern Spanish port of Algeciras.

The 18-strong crew includes former volunteers who were on board the Aquarius, a rescue boat run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee.

The two groups said they had to halt activities earlier this month because 
of obstruction by some European countries.

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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