Salvini clears 27 more migrants to leave Spanish ship Open Arms

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Saturday reluctantly authorised 27 migrant children rescued at sea to disembark from a charity vessel anchored in limbo off Lampedusa island for days.

Salvini clears 27 more migrants to leave Spanish ship Open Arms
27 migrants are escorted to a van on Lampedusa on Saturday. Photo: Alessandro Serrano/AFP
In a letter, Salvini told Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte he could authorise the “alleged” minors to leave the Open Arms ship, despite it being “divergent to my orientation.”
However, the remaining 105 adults and two accompanied children must stay on board in what the charity Proactiva Open Arms said were “untenable” conditions.   
“The go-ahead for the disembarkation of these people is the exclusive responsibility of the prime minister,” Salvini wrote in reply to a humanitarian request from Conte. The interior minister has the final say on border issues.
The charity said it would need time to break the news to the migrants that most of them must remain on board. Some were rescued more than two weeks ago.
“They will be evacuated by the coastguard of Lampedusa,” it tweeted.
This is the umpteenth standoff between a charity vessel rescuing migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean and Salvini, but this time set against the background of a political crisis in Rome.
Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister, has gained popularity through his hardline policies against migrants and asylum seekers.
He agreed last year with coalition partner the Five Star Movement's (M5S) Luigi Di Maio for Conte to be prime minister. 
But the men's relationship has unravelled since Salvini, leader of the anti-migrant League, last week pulled his party out of the ruling coalition in the hope of toppling the 14-month-old government.
Political crisis
The migrant standoff has taken centre stage in the political crisis, pending a potential Senate no-confidence vote in Conte on Tuesday.   
The ship has been anchored within swimming distance of southern island Lampedusa with 134 migrants on board since Thursday.
A Sicily prosecutor on Saturday sent judicial police to coastguard headquarters in Rome as part of a probe into alleged kidnapping and abuse of office because the Open Arms has not been allowed to dock.
Police took records of communications between the interior ministry and rescue services in order to verify the chain of command for who is preventing the ship from docking, the left-leaning Repubblica daily said. 
Safe port
Italy has evacuated a handful of people from the Open Arms for medical treatment but Salvini refuses to allow the vessel to dock despite other European countries having agreed to take in the people on board.
The ship's captain Marc Reig said Friday the migrants, rescued after leaving chaos-stricken Libya, were “broken psychologically”.
The founder of NGO Proactiva Open Arms said the situation aboard the vessel with so many traumatised people was “untenable”.
“There are constant fights, arguments on board,” he said on Twitter. “The truth is the tension is untenable.”
“From today, we can't be responsible or guarantee the security of the people we have on board the Open Arms,” he said on Facebook.
The mainly African migrants aboard Open Arms have been plucked from boats in the Mediterranean this month, with weather conditions encouraging more departures from Libya.
Political not humanitarian
Salvini tweeted that if the ship had gone to Spain instead of Italy 16 days ago “you would already have been home.” Proactiva Open Arms is based in Spain.
“The NGOs' battle is political and certainly not humanitarian, played out using the lives of migrants,” he said.
Conte said Thursday that France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg had agreed to take in the migrants.
But interior ministry sources said Friday that “no European country has taken formal steps to take the migrants on board.”
Earlier this month, Salvini signed a decree banning the Open Arms from Italian waters, saying it was to protect public order. But Proactiva appealed to the administrative court which on Wednesday suspended his decree.
Salvini then signed a new order blocking the ship, but in a demonstration of his diminished power, Italy's Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta blocked it as an act of “conscience”.
Salvini said in his letter to Conte that he hoped for a decision Monday on his appeal against the administrative court's ruling.
Another rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), is also looking for a port to dock with more than 350 migrants on board.

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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.