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IMMIGRATION

First Aquarius migrants arrive to cheers in Spain

The 630 migrants whose rescue sparked a major migration row in Europe began disembarking in Spain on Sunday after a turbulent week that saw Italy turn them away.

First Aquarius migrants arrive to cheers in Spain
Migrants disembark from the Aquarius rescue ship at Valencia´s port on June 17, 2018 Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP
The first of three ships transporting the group, an Italian coast guard vessel called the Datillo, pulled into Valencia harbour just before 6:30 am (0430 GMT) with 274 migrants on board, according to the Red Cross.
   
The Aquarius itself, the rescue ship chartered by a French NGO which has been at the centre of the crisis, pulled into port some four hours later under a clear blue sky at the port in southeastern Spain. 
   
As it neared port, those on board had danced and sang, their excitement captured in footage released on Twitter by SOS Mediterranée which operates the vessel together with Doctors Without Borders (MSF). 
   The third boat, the Italian navy ship the Orione, was due to arrive by midday, regional authorities said.
   
After the first boat docked, medical staff wearing white overalls, gloves and masks went on board to carry out initial medical checks before the migrants disembarked in groups of 20.
   
The migrants, most of them from Africa, were welcomed by a team of more than 2,000 people, including 470 translators and 1,000 Red Cross volunteers who distributed basic items such as blankets, clothes and hygiene kits
 
   
High waves and winds had forced the naval convoy to take a detour on its 1,500-kilometre (930-mile) voyage to Spain, ending a week-long odyssey in the Mediterranean.
 
'Welcome home'
 
At the port, a huge banner was hung up saying “Welcome home” in various languages including Arabic.
   
“Today is a historic day,” said Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, a well-known priest who heads the Messengers of Peace NGO which is helping migrants at the port. “It will be hard for Spaniards not to smile when they see these children disembark.” 
 
Among the passengers are 450 men and 80 women — at least seven of them pregnant — as well as 89 adolescents and 11 children under the age of 13, figures released by the Valencian authorities show. 
   
They come from 26 countries, mainly from Africa but also Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, MSF said. Those with injuries — mainly scratches and burns — were taken to hospital along with the pregnant woman, local health officials said. 
 
A French offer
 
The Aquarius rescued the migrants off Libya's coast last weekend but Italy's new populist government and Malta both refused to let it dock, accusing each other of failing to meet their humanitarian and EU commitments.
   
Spain eventually stepped in and agreed to receive the refugees as a “political gesture” to “oblige Europe to forge a common policy to a common problem,” Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said.
   
Madrid on Saturday said it had accepted an offer from France — who had angered Rome by branding it irresponsible — to welcome Aquarius migrants who “meet the criteria for asylum”.
   
Two countries will “work together” to handle the arrival, Spain's deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo said.
   
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez thanked French President Emmanuel Macron for his gesture, saying it was “exactly the kind of cooperation Europe needs” at this hour.
 
'Voyages of death'
   
The plight of the Aquarius has again highlighted the failure of EU member states to work together to deal with the influx of migrant arrivals since 2015. After Rome's decision to ban the Aquarius, Macron and Italian premier 
Giuseppe Conte met on Friday and agreed that the EU should set up asylum processing centres in Africa to prevent “voyages of death”.
   
They also demanded “profound” changes to the EU's asylum rules which put the migrant burden on their port of entry to Europe — mainly Italy and Greece.
   
Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini warned Saturday that other NGO operated rescue ships would also be banned from docking. 
   
“While the Aquarius is sailing towards Spain, two other Dutch NGO operated vessels (Lifeline and Seefuchs) have arrived off the Libyan coast, to wait for their human cargos once the people smugglers abandon them,” Salvini wrote on Facebook.
   
“These people should know that Italy no longer wants to be any part of this business of clandestine immigration and they will have to look for other ports to go to,” he said.

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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