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IMMIGRATION

French NGO vows nothing will stop Aquarius migrant rescues

The French NGO that was at the heart of a major European diplomatic row over migration said Wednesday that nothing would stop it from rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean as its ship prepared to resume its mission off the Libyan coast.

French NGO vows nothing will stop Aquarius migrant rescues
AFP

The Aquarius, chartered by French aid group SOS Mediterranee, was due to leave the southern port of Marseille later Wednesday nearly two months after Italy and Malta refused to let it dock with 630 migrants onboard, sparking a bitter international row who would take them in.

“Nothing except a threat to the security of our ship… will make us give up our triple mission: saving, protecting, bearing witness,” the NGO's chief Francis Vallat told a press conference.

The ship has been docked for a month for maintenance work following the row, which saw Italy's populist government insist it had had enough of NGOs dropping rescued migrants on its shores.

After being stranded at sea for days, the migrants onboard the Aquarius were eventually allowed to dock in Spain.

The crisis prompted EU leaders to seek a compromise deal at a summit meeting in late June, which could lead to “disembarkation platforms” outside 
the bloc, most likely in north Africa, to discourage migrants boarding EU-bound smuggler boats.

SOS Mediterranee says it has a humanitarian duty to prevent  migrants — mostly sub-Saharan Africans — from drowning as they attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing in rickety boats.

The group has picked up nearly 30,000 people since it launched its rescue operations in February 2016. Over the past four years, at least 15,000 people have drowned trying to make the journey, it said in a statement.

While docked, the ship has re-stocked with food and improved its sanitary facilities, including better waste treatment to prevent diseases spreading onboard.

In recent weeks Spain has overtaken Italy as the top European destination for migrant crossings, with close to 23,000 arrivals this year.

The European Commission is set to give Spain tens of millions of euros in emergency aid to cope with the influx from Morocco, a European source told AFP on Wednesday.

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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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