Salvini wants Europe to take migrants from Italy coastguard

Far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Friday ordered 135 migrants and refugees rescued in the Mediterranean to remain aboard an Italian coastguard vessel until other European countries agree to take them in.

Salvini wants Europe to take migrants from Italy coastguard
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Photo: AFP

Salvini, also deputy prime minister, has been trying to take a hardline against migrants rescued at sea being brought to Italy, which he says bears an unfair share of their numbers.

The migrants were spotted aboard two makeshift boats, one by Tunisian fishermen and the other by Italians, on Wednesday, the day before at least 115 other migrants are believed to have drowned in a shipwreck off Libya.

The Italian coastguard sent a small boat to rescue those spotted by the Tunisians and took them to a larger coastguard vessel.

The Italian fishing boat stayed with the other vessel carrying around 50 migrants for 24 hours, 50 nautical miles from Malta and in its search and rescue area.

“We gave them water and crackers… we stayed in permanent contact with the (Italian) coastguard, but Malta never answered,” the fishing boat's captain, Carlo Giarratano, told journalists after arriving in western Sicily's Sciacca.

An Italian coastguard vessel eventually arrived to transport the migrants to the coastguard supply vessel, the Gregoretti.

“The government has officially asked the European Commission to coordinate operations to distribute the migrants who are currently on board,” interior ministry sources said.

“There are 135 people. Pending an official reply, no disembarkation port has been designated,” they said in a statement.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday police and the coastguard rescued 77 people, mostly women and children, three days after they left Libya and brought them all to Italy's Lampedusa.

Other migrant boats continue to arrive in Italy, including two from Tunisia with a total of 34 people on board that arrived in Lampedusa on Wednesday night.

Charity rescue boats, the main target of Salvini's ire, were not operating in the area at the time, with many of them detained pending prosecution of their crews.

German aid group Sea-Eye's vessel Alan Kurdi left Spain on Thursday headed for the waters off Libya.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday said 14 states had approved a plan to redistribute refugees rescued in the Mediterranean, and eight said they would actively take part.

A furious Salvini said at the time that the agreement underscored a demand that Italy “continue to be the refugee camp of Europe”.

The issue of what to do with the thousands of refugees still attempting to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea has sparked a sharp response in some countries, with Italy saying it is bearing the brunt of the problem while its EU partners do little to help.

After snubbing Macron's meeting, Salvini said Italy “does not take orders and is not a partner: if Macron wants to discuss migrants, come to Rome”.

Last month, Italian authorities arrested the German captain of the Sea-Watch 3 charity boat, Carola Rackete, after she hit an Italian speedboat while docking without permission in Lampedusa.

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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.