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IMMIGRATION

Migrant rescue sailboat defies Salvini by docking in Italy

A charity rescue vessel on Saturday brought 41 shipwrecked migrants into port in Lampedusa, the second boat to defy far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s bid to close Italian ports to them.

Migrant rescue sailboat defies Salvini by docking in Italy
Photos: AFP

Mediterranea’s Italian-flagged Alex was met by a strong police presence on the quayside but people were not allowed to disembark after spending two days with the rescued migrants and asylum-seekers on the sailboat.

“I do not authorise any landing for those who couldn’t care less about Italian laws and help the people smugglers,” populist deputy prime minister Salvini tweeted as night fell.

Salvini last month issued a decree that would bring fines of up to 50,000 euros ($57,000) for the captain, owner and operator of a vessel “entering Italian territorial waters without authorisation”.

After the Alex reached port, he said that he would raise the maximum fine to 1 million euros.

Mediterranea tweeted back a request to disembark those rescued, saying it had sailed to “the only possible safe port for landing”, citing “intolerable hygiene conditions aboard”.

“Shipwrecks and crew are exhausted… people rescued need to be cared for… this is a surreal situation and it is an unnecessary cruelty to prolong the wait.”

Authorities on Lampedusa last week seized another rescue ship belonging to German aid group Sea-Watch after it forced its way into port with dozens of rescued migrants on board and arrested its captain, Carola Rackete.

An Italian judge this week ordered her freed as she had been acting to save lives, a decision which sparked Salvini’s ire but may have encouraged the Alex crew.

Two other investigations, on charges of helping people smugglers and resisting the authorities are still underway after Rackete forced her way past Italian customs vessels.

A third rescue ship, German charity Sea-Eye’s vessel Alan Kurdi, carrying 65 shipwrecked migrants rescued off Libya on Saturday also arrived in international waters off Lampedusa.

‘European irresponsibility’

In Germany, more than 30,000 people demonstrated in cities around the country in solidarity with Rackete, including 8,000 in Berlin and 4,000 in Hamburg.

“The irresponsibility of European countries obliged me to do what I did,” Rackete said in a message to demonstrators, many of whom brandished life vests.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wrote a letter to Salvini asking him to rethink his policy, sources close to the German government said.

“We cannot be responsible for boats with people rescued from shipwrecks on board spending weeks on the Mediterranean because they can’t find a port,” Seehofer wrote.

Salvini accuses NGO rescue vessels of helping smugglers and had insisted Alex sail for the Maltese capital Valetta after 13 “vulnerable” people were on Friday taken to Lampedusa, leaving 41 on board.

Malta also told the Alex to go to Valletta to disembark the migrants, but Mediterranea said the journey would be too arduous and the boat would likely be seized if it did.

Photographs showed dozens of migrants and asylum-seekers seeking shelter from the sun under survival blankets on the narrow deck of the 18-metre (59-foot) sailboat.

15-hour journey

“In these conditions it is impossible to face 15 hours of sailing,” Mediterranea’s Alessandra Sciurba said on Twitter.

Mediterranea consists mainly of left-wing activists, the avowed enemy of Salvini, who has seen his popularity and that of his Lega party rise thanks to his tough stance against migrant rescue ships.

A poll published in Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper on Saturday said 59 percent of Italians approved of Salvini’s closing ports NGO vessels.

On Wednesday, four people were rescued after a makeshift vessel carrying 86 people across the Mediterranean from Libya sank off the Tunisian coast. All the others are missing or dead.

The Italian judge in last week’s Sea-Watch case ruled that neither Libya nor Tunisia were safe countries for migrants.

Libya, which has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 uprising that killed veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi, has long been a major transit route for migrants, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, desperate to reach Europe.

On Tuesday night, 53 migrants were killed in an air strike on their detention centre in a Tripoli suburb.

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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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