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France: The Med cannot be an open-air cemetery

France will press European leaders to take action to prevent tragedies like the shipwreck off the Italian coast that has left several hundred migrants dead, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday.

France: The Med cannot be an open-air cemetery
France wants Europe to take action to prevent more tragedies like last week's ship wreck off Lampedusa. Photo:APF

"The Mediterranean cannot remain a huge open-air cemetery. Action must be taken," Fabius told Europe 1 radio, i-Tele and newspaper Le Monde in a televised appearance.

Fabius said President Francois Hollande wants the issue of border controls to be on the agenda for a European Council meeting of heads of state on October 24-25.

Italy has also called for European leaders to address the issue at the summit.

"It is very possible that the president will bring this issue to the agenda of the European Council," Fabius said.

"The heads of state must translate their outrage into action," he said, calling for increased funding for European migration bodies and stronger border controls.

Italy and France have already called for European interior ministers to hold talks on immigration at a meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday.

Divers on Sunday resumed their search for bodies after the shipwreck disaster off the remote Italian island of Lampedusa.

Over 120 bodies have so far been recovered from the boat that was carrying between 450 and 500 African asylum-seekers when it capsized Thursday off Lampedusa, the first entry point to Italy from north Africa.

It is feared that the final death toll could be closer to 300, which would make the accident the worst ever Mediterranean refugee tragedy after a previous one in 1996, also off Italian shores, claimed 283 lives.

Fabius said action needed to be taken to toughen penalties against people-smugglers and to boost the resources of Frontex, the European border control agency.

Noting that Frontex has an annual budget of only 50-60 million euros ($68-$81 million), Fabius said: "This is nothing at all in the context of the European budget.

"It really is an embarrassment. It is not enough to be outraged, we must back that up with resources," he said. "Everyone recognises that Frontex is not the size that it should be."

  

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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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