Why is Spain ignoring calls to take in child refugees?

Spain on Tuesday refused to consider a request from a Spanish rescue boat that it grant asylum to 31 minors stuck aboard the ship, arguing the demand was not valid.

Why is Spain ignoring calls to take in child refugees?
In this file photo a member of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms carries a dead child out of the sea and onto a zodiac rescue boat in the Mediterranean sea about 85 miles of the Libyan coast.

The captain of the Open Arms, Marc Reig, sent a letter on Monday to  Spain's embassy in Malta asking that Madrid grant asylum to the minors, saying they all “fulfill the conditions for recognition as refugees”.

Another 150 migrants who were plucked from several boats in the Mediterranean are on board the Open Arms, off the coast of Italy's southern Lampedusa island.

Both Malta and Italy have refused permission for the boat to dock and unload all the migrants.

Asked if Madrid would agree to Reig's request, Public Works Minister Jose Luis Abalos told private television Telecinco the Open Arms captain did not have the “legal competence or authority” to demand asylum for the minors.   

Under Spanish law asylum applications must be lodged in person or by a legally accredited representative.

The minister also recalled that under international agreements, rescued migrants should be taken to the closest available port which in the case of the Open Arms is in Italy.

Abalos defended Spain's record in rescuing migrants at sea, saying the coast guard had saved 50,000 migrants last year, echoing recent comments made by other Spanish ministers.

“It is not fair to question the government of Spain, or the reputation of the government of Spain, when it comes to the issue of rescues,” he added.   

Proactiva Open Arms, which operates the Open Arms rescue ship, has called for European countries to agree to take in migrants it has picked up.   

Italy's far-right Interior Minister  Matteo Salvini has insisted since coming to power last year that rescued migrants can land in Italy only if an agreement is already in place with other European countries to look after them.

Oscar-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem on Monday called on Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to take a leadership role within the European Union for the distribution of migrants Open Arms has rescued, joining other celebrities including Antonio Banderas and Richard Gere who have urged governments to act.

“We think that Spain is the ideal and right country to do so since it's the country of origin of the NGO Open Arms, which is doing a necessary and extraordinary job for human dignity and to save the lives of people who are fleeing from situations that we can't even begin to imagine,” Bardem said in a video posted on Twitter.


READ MORE: Spain's model for saving lives at sea should be emulated in the EU

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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.