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IMMIGRATION

Spain police break up gang kidnapping migrants for ransom

Spanish police said Thursday they had broken up a gang suspected of kidnapping migrants shortly after they arrived in Spain by boat from Morocco and holding them for ransom.

Spain police break up gang kidnapping migrants for ransom
Police in Algeciras. Photo: AFP

The gang allegedly waited for migrant boats to land on beaches near the southern port of Algeciras, and then promised to help migrants find their family members in Spain, police said in a statement.

The victims were then taken to a house in Algeciras where they were locked up in rooms and forced to give up their mobile phones and other personal items.

Gang members would phone the victim's family members and demand €500-€2,000 to secure their release.

They would interrogate their victims beforehand “to estimate how much they could demand from their loved ones,” the police statement said.

Police arrested five suspects as part of their investigation — three men and a woman from Morocco who were living in Spain legally and a Spanish woman.

The men allegedly carried out the kidnappings while the women kept watch over the victims. 

Police said the operation remained open and they did not rule out further arrests. They did not say how many migrants they believed were kidnapped by the gang.

The authorities said they began their probe in August 2017 after becoming aware that migrants were being kidnapped shortly after they reached Spanish shores.

The port of Algeciras, near the contested British territory of Gibraltar on Spain's southern tip, is commonly used as a crossing point by migrants due to its proximity to Morocco.

Spain is the third busiest gateway for migrants arriving in Europe, still far behind Italy but catching up fast with Greece.

Many Africans undertaking the long route to Europe are choosing to avoid crossing danger-ridden Libya to get to Italy along the so-called central Mediterranean route, choosing instead to get there via Morocco and Spain.

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 22,400 people arrived in Spain by sea last year, nearly triple the number for 2016. Some 223 people died along the way.

READ ALSO: Migrant arrivals to Spain by sea triple in 2017

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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