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IMMIGRATION

France blasts ‘Christian-only refugee’ mayors

The French government has scolded several of the country's mayors who have come out claiming they don't want Muslim refugees to be relocated in their towns, with the interior minister calling their stance "dreadful".

France blasts 'Christian-only refugee' mayors
A group of refugees walk towards the Hungarian-Austrian border. Photo: Attila Kisbenedek / AFP

The French government on Tuesday condemned two mayors who said they would only take in Christian refugees, as the country prepares to receive the first tranche of some 24,000 migrants.

“You don't sort (refugees) on the basis of religion. The right to asylum is a universal right,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Tuesday evening, hours before some 200 are expected to arrive from Germany.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve also condemned the two mayors.

“I really don't understand this distinction. I condemn it and I think it's dreadful,”  Cazeneuve told France 2 television.

“A whole series of minorities are being persecuted in the situation in Syria,” he said. “Christians from the Middle East must be welcomed but there are also Muslims and other minorities who are persecuted with the same degree of barbarity.”

France, he said, “must be prepared to take in all those who are persecuted regardless of their religion and their background.”

The mayor of the central town of Roanne, Yves Nicolin, said Monday he was prepared to resettle “a dozen families, providing they are Christian refugees who are persecuted in Syria by Daesh (the Islamic State group) for being Christians”.

Damien Meslot, the mayor of Belfort in eastern France, said he would only consider taking in Christian families from Iraq and Syria because “they are the most persecuted”.

Both mayors are from the centre-right, which is in opposition nationally.

Under pressure to respond to Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II, French President Francois Hollande said Monday that France was prepared to take in 24,000 people over two years.

The decision as to how the asylum-seekers are distributed around the country is taken by a separate government office, and not by individual town halls, the interior ministry said.

The French mayors' comments recall remarks from Slovakia in August which said it would only accept Christians when it takes in Syrian refugees because Muslims would not feel at home there.

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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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