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IMMIGRATION

Spanish NGO quits Libya migrant rescues over ‘criminalisation’ of aid work

A Spanish NGO on Thursday said it will halt its migrant rescue missions off Libya to support operations in Spain, as it denounced the "criminalisation" of humanitarian groups in the Mediterranean.

Spanish NGO quits Libya migrant rescues over 'criminalisation' of aid work
Photos: AFP

Following a rise in migrant arrivals on the Spanish coast, Proactiva Open Arms said it will join rescue operations carried out by the Spanish coastguard in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Sea of Alboran, which separate Morocco from the EU member state.

It will begin work in Spain in the next few weeks and stay “as long as migratory pressure lasts,” it said in a statement.

The decision comes after tensions over migration in Europe saw Malta and Italy repeatedly close its ports to NGO ships crisscrossing the Mediterranean to help migrants at risk.

“The intense campaigns of criminalisation of NGOs in the central Mediterranean and the launch of inhumane policies have caused not only the closure of Italian and Maltese ports, but the paralysis of many humanitarian relief organisations, at the same time as a rise in the number of migrants arriving near the south of Spain,” the NGO said in a statement.

Proactiva Open Arms has been forced to land migrants rescued off Libya three times in Spanish ports.

Rescue boats which pull migrants from dangerously overcrowded boats have faced criticism from European politicians for aiding people traffickers.

Last week three volunteers on the island of Lesbos in Greece were arrested on suspicion of helping illegal migrants to reach the country in an operation that involved 30 NGO members, police claimed.

Earlier this year, three Spaniards and two Danes were also accused of trying to help migrants illegally enter Greece.

Nearly 28,000 illegal migrants have arrived on makeshift boats on the Spanish coast since January, close to the total number of arrivals for all of 2017 on both land and sea, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

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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