Red Cross urges Europe to follow Spain and show migrant ‘solidarity’

The head of the Red Cross urged European Union member states Sunday to follow Spain's example of welcoming a rejected migrant ship and "put into practice" the humanitarian values promoted by the bloc.

Red Cross urges Europe to follow Spain and show migrant 'solidarity'
A rescued migrant hugs an aid worker before disembarking the Aquarius in Valencia port. Photo: AFP

Spain has “opened its arms at a time when many reject (refugees) and are not showing solidarity,” Elhadj As Sy of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told AFP in the Spanish port of Valencia, where he was overseeing the arrival of 630 migrants from the Aquarius rescue boat.   

“There are 66 million people right now seeking refuge and some of them are coming of course to Europe like they are going to other places because they are looking for support, they are looking for solidarity,” he added.

“Those are values that Europe is promoting. And we also expect from Europe to put those values into practice like we are seeing here today.”    

The Aquarius migrants rescued off Libya's coast last weekend were left in high-seas limbo after Italy and Malta bickered over who should accept them, sparking a major migration row. 

Spain eventually agreed to take them in.   

“We call on all other countries to follow suit in helping those in need in the name of the one fundamental principle, which is one humanity which we all share,” As Sy said.

He recalled that one-third of Lebanon's population is made up of refugees, with another one million refugees in Jordan and three million in Turkey.


Game changer?

Spain's new Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez offered Monday to allow the Aquarius to dock in Valencia “to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe” and “comply with our human rights obligations”.

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.   

As Sy said the Aquarius case could change the way Europe handles migration.   

“If people sustain the efforts that are being made and we do not see a one-off operation, it could be a game changer,” he said.   

“Be it in Valencia or anywhere else where we have witnessed people arriving, we have seen people spontaneously come out to help. I think when people see more and more the benefit of helping others, that can alleviate fears and misunderstandings, and misinterpretations for political… games,” he added.   

“What matters at the end of the day is the humanitarian support and assistance.”

He also hailed France's offer to accept Aquarius migrants who meet the criteria for asylum.   

“That is of course welcome. I hope that they can continue and do more and that other countries will follow suit as well,” he said.

'Symbol of many others'

Hundreds of international journalists were accredited to cover Sunday's arrival of the migrants in Valencia.

“We are happy that this is being covered because it is a symbol of (the fate of other migrant ships)… Attention should be drawn to the fact that this situation has to be managed and responded to in a humane way,” As Sy said.   

“There should be space for people to feel safe, where people should have the opportunity to develop themselves and care for themselves and their families,” he added.

He stressed more needed to be done to avoid that migrants “do not fall in the hands of traffickers and smugglers”.   

Countries have an obligation to host and protect asylum-seekers “according to international law for refugees but also according to the principles of humanity,” As Sy said.

By AFP's Diego Urdaneta 


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.