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IMMIGRATION

‘Disgrace to humanity’: Spain slams Italy’s Salvini over refusal to accept rescued migrants

Spain on Monday stepped up criticism of Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's refusal to allow 107 migrants on board a charity vessel to disembark at an Italian port, calling it "a disgrace to humanity".

'Disgrace to humanity': Spain slams Italy's Salvini over refusal to accept rescued migrants
Spanish migrant rescue NGO ship Open Arms is seen off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on August 17th. Photo: AFP

The Open Arms has been anchored since Thursday within swimming distance of Lampedusa island, and some of those rescued have spent 18 days on board.   

Six European Union countries — France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg — have offered to take in the migrants.   

But far-right Salvini, who has plunged the Italian government into crisis by calling for fresh elections, has refused to allow migrant rescue vessels to dock as part of his hardline policies.

“What Salvini is doing in relationship with the Open Arms is a disgrace to humanity as a whole,” Spain's Defence Minister Margarita Robles told reporters in Madrid.

Salvini was “putting human lives at risk” for “exclusively electoral purposes”, she added.

Late Monday, Open Arms told AFP by phone that the coast guard has authorised the evacuation of eight people “needing urgent assistance” to Lampedusa island.

These migrants were suffering from wounds or infections and like the majority on board, post-traumatic stress, it said, adding in a later tweet that the situation was becoming “more complicated every minute.”

But the charity continues to demand that all onboard be allowed to disembark at Lampedusa.

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'Inhumane'

Spain said late Sunday the ship could dock in Mallorca in the Balearic Islands after an initial offer to go to the southwestern port of Algeciras was rejected because it was too far.

But the charity on Monday described the offer of Mallorca as “totally incomprehensible”.

“While our boat is 800 metres (yards) off the coast of Lampedusa, European states are asking a small NGO like ours to face… three days of sailing in harsh weather conditions,” it added in a statement.

The Balearic Islands lie 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) west of Lampedusa.   

Italy's Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli on Sunday offered the Open Arms a coastguard escort to Spain.

In an interview with online newspaper eldiario.es, Open Arms founder Oscar Camps suggested Madrid could send a faster boat to pick up the migrants or fly them from Lampedusa to Spain.

“It is urgent to end this inhumane and unacceptable situation which the people who we rescued at sea are living,” Open Arms said in a statement.   

The Spanish government denied the existence of an agreement with Italy and said it had not received a “clear and direct reply” from the NGO to its Mallorca offer.

“It is not a question of accepting or not accepting” the offer, an Open Arms spokeswoman said.

“The answer we gave them is that we cannot guarantee the safety of these people on our boat. Since Italy and Spain have assumed responsibility for these people, they should find a solution.”

In Spain, the foundation of football giants Barcelona tweeted its support Monday for “our Open Arms friends” and said it wanted the “unfair situation of the ship to be resolved as soon as possible”.

'Illegal and incomprehensible'

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, on Monday welcomed Spain's “good will” but urged “all member states and NGOs to cooperate and find a solution which will allow the people on board the Open Arms to disembark as soon as possible”.

Salvini argues Italy bears an unfair burden as the first port of call for rescued migrants and it is up to EU partners to do their part to resolve the crisis.

Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said Italy has closed its port to the Open Arms in a “totally illegal and incomprehensible way” but she also criticised the NGO for not accepting Madrid's permission to dock.

“We offered them everything because we don't want these lives to be in danger any longer,” she told news radio Cadena Ser.

Salvini on Saturday reluctantly agreed to let 27 migrant children from the Open Arms disembark.

Over the past 18 days, 479 migrants arrived on Italy's shores, more than 100 of them on Lampedusa, according to the interior ministry.

By Mathieu Gorse / AFP

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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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