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IMMIGRATION

Spain stops migrant rescue boat Open Arms from setting sail

Spanish migrant rescue charity Proactiva Open Arms said Monday that the authorities were preventing its ship from setting sail from Barcelona to save migrants.

Spain stops migrant rescue boat Open Arms from setting sail
The Open Arms rescue ship has been blocked in port. Photo: AFP

“We are blocked in a port once again. Port Authority in Barcelona denied permission to Open Arms to sail #Med Central,” the charity based near the Catalan capital wrote in a tweet.

“Preventing us from saving lives is irresponsible and cruel,” said Proactiva Open Arms founder Oscar Camps in a separate tweet, accusing “cowardly politicians” of putting migrants' lives at risk.

Proactiva Open Arms operates in  between Libya and southern Europe, coming to the aid of migrants who get into difficulties during the sea crossing from northern Africa.

The charity's rescue ship, Open Arms, docked in southern Spain on December 28th with 311 mainly African migrants it had rescued a week earlier off the coast of Libya after both Italy and Malta denied it entry.

After stocking up with provisions in Barcelona, the ship had been due to set sail again on January 8th but Barcelona's Port Authority prohibited it from leaving, a  Proactiva Open Arms spokeswoman told AFP.

The charity appealed the decision two days later, requesting that it be allowed to put out to sea to carry out “observation and surveillance tasks in the central Mediterranean”.

In a statement, Spain's public works ministry, which controls the Port Authority, said Spain has no maritime rescue jurisdiction off the Libyan coast where Open Arms operates and had violated maritime regulations on past rescue missions.

Since the boat lacks permission to dock in countries near where it operates, “it has had to cross the Mediterranean for several days to disembark rescued migrants, putting the safety of the ship, its crew and the people on board at risk,” the statement added.

Shortly after he came to power in June, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez allowed the Aquarius, a boat chartered by the aid groups SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, to dock in Spain with more than 600 migrants on board.

His Socialist government also allowed the Open Arms to dock in Spain but in August refused once again to receive the Aquarius.   

Spain became Europe's main entry point for migrants last year, overtaking Greece and Italy, which have taken measures to prevent rescued migrants from landing at its ports.

More than 55,000 migrants arrived in Spain by sea in 2018, according to the UN refugee agency.

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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