Italy urges EU ports to take migrants as pressure builds

Funeral cars ready to transport nine refugees found dead during a rescue operation for another 650 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast, wait to disembark in Sicily, 1 July 2017. [Orietta Scardino/EPA]

France and Germany’s interior ministers met with their Italian counterpart in Paris on Sunday (2 July) to discuss a “coordinated response” to Italy’s migrant crisis, hours after the latter had called on other European countries to open their ports to rescue ships.

The working dinner at the French interior ministry – also attended by EU Commissioner for Refugees Dimitris Avramopoulos – was aimed at finding “a coordinated and concerted response to the migrant flux in the central Mediterranean (route) and see how to better help the Italians,” a source close the talks said.

The four-way talks between Italy’s Marco Minniti, Thomas de Maizière of Germany, Gérard Collomb of France and Avramopoulos will also prepare them for EU talks in Tallinn this week.

“The talks went off very well,” a member of the Italian delegation told AFP after the Paris meeting, with the “Italian proposals being discussed”. The source offered no other details.

“We are under enormous pressure,” Minniti had said earlier on Sunday in an interview with Il Messaggero.

With arrivals in Italy up nearly 19% over the same period last year, Rome has threatened to close its ports to privately-funded aid boats or insist that funding be cut to EU countries which fail to help.

“There are NGO ships, Sophia and Frontex boats, Italian coast guard vessels” saving migrants in the Mediterranean, Minniti said, referring to the aid boats as well as vessels deployed under EU border security missions.

“They are sailing under the flags of various European countries. If the only ports where refugees are taken to are Italian, something is not working. This is the heart of the question,” he said.

“I am a Europhile and I would be proud if even one vessel, instead of arriving in Italy, went to another European port. It would not resolve Italy’s problem, but it would be an extraordinary signal” of support, he said.

‘Unfolding tragedy’

More than 83,000 people rescued while attempting the perilous crossing from Libya have been brought to Italy so far this year, according to the UN, while more than 2,160 have died trying, the International Organisation for Migration says.

Italy’s Red Cross has warned the situation in the country’s overcrowded reception centres is becoming critical.

“What is happening in front of our eyes in Italy is an unfolding tragedy,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Saturday.

One of the rescue organisations, SOS Mediterranee, which runs an aid vessel along with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), said forcing boats carrying migrants to go to other European ports would be logistically difficult.

If the order came, “we would have no choice, we would obey. But it would be completely impossible with more than 1,000 people on board,” SOS Mediterranee spokeswoman Mathilde Auvillain told AFP.

“And then we’d need to make a stopover in an Italian port anyway to refuel, or we’d end up needing to be rescued ourselves.”

After weeks or months spent in Libyan camps – where many migrants are raped or tortured – those rescued are already traumatised, “imagine adding two or three more days at sea. Our priority is to protect them,” she said.

Code of conduct

Minniti said Rome would be pushing for a way to shift the asylum application process from Italy to crisis-hit Libya, and safely bring to Europe those who win the right to protection.

“We have to distinguish before they set off (across the Mediterranean) between those who have a right to humanitarian protection and those who don’t,” he said.

Unsourced Italian media reports said Rome was likely to call for a European code of conduct to be drawn up for the privately-run aid boats, with Corriere della Sera saying vessels that did not comply could be “seized”.

Rome would like a regional maritime command centre to oversee all rescue operations from Greece to Libya to Spain, which would spread the migrant arrivals between European countries, it said.

And Italy insists that the EU refugee relocation programme – which is largely limited to people from Eritrea and Syria – should be expanded to include other nationalities, such as Nigerians, La Repubblica said.

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