France ‘must do more’ to end migrant tragedies

As the EU comes under fire over the latest boat tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea that saw hundreds of migrants drown, a leading French humanitarian organisation says France must do more to end the disasters.

France 'must do more' to end migrant tragedies
One of six makeshift boats filled with migrants which was spotted by an Italian Navy ship, in the Mediterranean sea near Lampedusa. Photo: Italian Navy

France and the rest of the EU faced mounting pressure on Monday after the latest migrant boat shipwreck in the Mediterranean left up 700 people dead.

With foreign and interior ministers set for an urgent meeting there were reports that another boat carrying 300 migrants was in trouble in the same sea, that has been described as a vast cemetery.

The latest disasters come after a week in which two other shipwrecks left an estimated 450 people dead. For Jean-François Corty, from the aid organisation Medecins du Monde, the time for talking is over.

“Meetings are not enough anymore. We need concrete action and policies put in place immediately because hundreds of people are dying each week in the Mediterranean. The sea has become a vast cemetery,” Corty told The Local.

Corty, who is the director of operations in France for Medecins du Monde, says France and the rest of Europe must “either act now or simply accept the deaths of hundreds of migrants.”

“And if they don't act then we are faced with a crisis of our values,” he said.

Medecins du Monde has heavily criticized France and other EU countries for having a policy of not improving the welcome and protection offered to asylum seekers out of fear that it will simply encourage more to come.

“This argument is dead now. We can’t accept it anymore," Corty said

“These people will try anything to get to Europe and the government needs to take measures that correspond to this reality and to protect these people,” he added.

For more coverage on the boat tragedy, visit our sister site The Local Italy

Corty says France must do more to help Italy, “which is on the front line in the crisis.”

Improving its welcome for asylum seekers and increasing its capacity to take in more refugees are two ways France alone could act to take the weight off Italy.

France could also deploy greater maritime resources to help rescue migrants who make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean sea from Libya or Egypt.

“France and other EU countries have to accept the idea that they must protect these people who are fleeing war or unjust regimes. These migrants are not just coming for economic reasons. They have no alternative,” he said.

Paris could also use its political influence over countries like Eritrea to try to ease the conflict in the country, which is prompting so many to flee.

The press across Europe also laid into the EU and its member states on Monday for failing to protect migrants.

France's Le Figaro suggested that Europeans go to the United Nations and ask for permission to police the Libyan coast, from where countless boats depart, profiting from the country's political strife.

President François Hollande said on Sunday that Europe “must act” against the growing catalogue of mass drownings of migrants attempting to reach its shores, and called for closer surveillance of the routes used by smugglers.

He did not however spell out what France would or could do to help ease the situation.

Hollande called for "more boats, more aerial surveillance and an intensified fight against trafficking".

"Because those who put these people on boats are traffickers, terrorists even, because they know these boats are lousy… and put hundreds of people in danger."

Many of the migrants who survive the perilous boat trips to Italy make their way north to France and up to Calais where hundreds are amassed, in the hope of making it across the sea to the UK.

Corty and Medecins du Monde have been pressurizing the French government to ease the situation for the migrants in Calais, most of whom are living in squalor in makeshift camps.

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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.