Spain in talks with Italy and Malta over rescued migrants

Spain said Wednesday it was in talks with Italy and Malta to try to find a port which would allow a Spanish fishing vessel with 12 migrants on board to dock.

Spain in talks with Italy and Malta over rescued migrants
The fishing vessel docked in Alicante. File photo:

Since last Thursday the 13 crew members of the “Nuestra Madre Loreto” have hosted 12 migrants from Niger, Somalia, Sudan, Senegal and Egypt whom they rescued from a rubber dinghy off the coast of Libya.

Madrid initially asked Libya to take charge of the migrants since it was the nearest country to the boat, as called for by international law, before turning to its EU partners, the Spanish government said in a statement.

“The Spanish government is lobbying the governments of Italy and Malta, whose coasts are closest to the boat, to try to find a quick, alternative and satisfactory solution” to receive them, Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo added in the statement.

Due to worsening sea conditions, the fishing vessel on Tuesday moved away from the coast of Libya and headed towards the Italian island of Lampedusa, the statement added.

The boat's captain, Pascual Dura, told AFP on Tuesday that Italy and Malta had both refused to allow the vessel to dock and unload the migrants while Spain's maritime rescue service only offered to return the migrants to Libya.   

Dura said the migrants “get very nervous and hysterical” when they “hear the word Libya”.

“If we go to Libya, we run the risk of a mutiny,” he added.   

Abuse of migrants is widespread in Libya, following the chaos which has reigned since the 2011 ousting of dictator Moamer Kadhafi.   

Many migrants, intercepted or rescued at sea, find themselves held in detention centres in the country in dire conditions.   

Shortly after Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez came to power in June, Spain welcomed the Aquarius charity-run rescue ship and its 630 migrants after Italy and Malta refused to harbour the vessel.

Spain also welcomed the Open Arms ship three times but in September Madrid declined to receive the Aquarius again. Instead it negotiated the distribution of the migrants aboard the ship among several other European Union nations.


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.