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IMMIGRATION

France and Germany seek new migration solutions as rescue ships left adrift

Germany and France pushed Sunday for new solutions to the migration crisis as bickering among European Union leaders left boats carrying hundreds of African migrants adrift at sea.

France and Germany seek new migration solutions as rescue ships left adrift
Photo: AFP
Sixteen of the EU's 28 leaders held emergency talks in Brussels to find a way forward despite a longstanding deadlock over who should take in migrants and refugees who land in Italy and other European countries.
   
Hundreds of people fleeing conflict and persecution at home are caught in the midst of a worsening row over how to deal with the influx against a backdrop of mass drownings in the Mediterranean in recent years.
   
Italy, a country on the frontline of the crisis, has turned away rescue vessels, with its new populist government demanding greater solidarity from reluctant fellow EU states.
 
One boat, the Lifeline, remained in limbo on Sunday with 239 Africans aboard, including pregnant women and children, with Malta and Italy refusing to take it in, after the Aquarius suffered a similar fate until it was allowed to dock in Spain.
 
'Irresponsible': France blasts Italy but defends not taking in stranded migrant ship
Photo: AFP
   
Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini bluntly told foreign charities on Sunday to stop rescuing migrants off Libya, where one group said 1,000 people were on boats in distress. 
   
He accused them of abetting people smugglers.
   
But the German operators of the Lifeline hit out at Salvini for referring to its passengers as a consignment of “human flesh”.
   
“Dear Matteo Salvini, we have no meat on board, but humans,” it said in a statement.
   
The plight of the stranded migrants lent a sense of urgency to the meeting in Brussels, which was riven with divisions and snubbed by countries taking a hardline on the issue.
   
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to forge ahead with like-minded leaders on ways to reduce migrant flows and share responsibility for those who land on Europe's shores.
   
Merkel, who is scrambling to prevent a mutiny in her government over migration, admitted there were still “some differences” but also “a great deal of common ground”.
 
Limited deals
 
Macron pointed to the sharp drop in Mediterranean crossings since 2015 as proof that the crisis is now mainly “political”, fuelled by the rise of anti-immigration populists.
   
Italy has accused him of “arrogance” and placed the responsibility for saving migrants in the Mediterranean squarely at the feet of Libya, much of which is lawless.
   
Officials warn that a new surge of migrants could trigger the collapse of free travel within the EU, its signature achievement.
   
“Our top priority, if we want to save free movement within the Schengen area, is to ensure real, strict controls of the EU's external borders,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said.
 
Photo: AFP
   
Sunday's meeting paves the way for a full EU summit on Thursday and Friday.
 
Merkel however downplayed the likelihood of “an overall solution to the migration problem”, suggesting “bilateral or trilateral agreements for mutual benefit” instead. 
   
Macron urged a European solution, “whether that is cooperation among 28 or among several countries that decide to move forward together”.
   
Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which have refused to take in refugees from overstretched countries such as Italy and Greece, boycotted the Brussels meeting.
   
Macron has infuriated Italy by accusing it of “irresponsibility” for turning away migrant vessels and denouncing the “leprosy” of rising populism.
 
Italy has in turn accused France of hypocrisy, noting that Paris keeps pushing migrants back across their shared border.
   
Under the EU's so-called Dublin rules, asylum-seekers must be processed in the country where they first arrive, usually Italy, Greece and Spain.
   
EU leaders last December had set the end of June as a deadline to establish a permanent mechanism to distribute asylum-seekers throughout the bloc — but an agreement has proved elusive.
 
Europe's 'refugee camp' 
 
France and Spain have called for asylum-seekers to be kept in closed centres until their claims are processed — a proposal that Rome fears would turn Italy into “a refugee camp for all of Europe”. 
   
The issue has raised tensions in Germany, where Merkel is trying to placate a coalition ally opposed to taking in more migrants.
   
Her hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has given her until the end of June to find a European deal to curb new arrivals.
   
If that fails, he has vowed to order border police to turn back migrants, which means many will likely have to return to Italy.
 
Rescue operation by Medecins Sans Frontieres in 2015. Photo: AFP
   
In a counter-proposal, Italy on Sunday called for migrant “protection centres” to be set up in several EU countries to relieve overcrowding in its facilities and also demanded more aid for African countries that fight human trafficking.
   
EU leaders also discussed measures to strengthen the external borders — an issue on which there is consensus — and roposals for centres in countries outside the bloc to separate genuine war refugees from economic migrants.
   
Cooperation deals with Turkey and Libya have sharply cut the flow of migrants to Europe since a 2015 peak of over one million.
 
 By AFP's Lachlan CARMICHAEL and Clare BYRNE

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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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