Italy urges EU ports to take migrants as pressure builds

03.07.2017

Italy's interior minister called on other European countries on Sunday to open their ports to rescue ships ahead of talks with France and Germany on tackling the migrant emergency.

Marco Minniti, who meets his counterparts in Paris later Sunday to prepare for EU talks in Tallinn this week, said in an interview with Il Messaggero daily that "we are under enormous pressure".

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

"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. 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.

Over 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.

Interior Minister Minniti was set to meet counterparts Gerard Collomb of France, Thomas de Maiziere of Germany and European Union Commissioner for Refugees Dimitris Avramopoulos at 1800 GMT in the French capital. Even before the meeting, his plans were being met with scorn on Italy's political right.

"The attempt to involve Europe, which clearly doesn't give a damn, is pathetic," said Paolo Romani, the head of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party in the Senate, calling for the ports to be barred.

Minniti said Rome would be pushing for a way to shift the asylum application process from Italy to 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. And, on the basis of the decisions made by the UNHCR, we must ensure the former depart for Europe while economic migrants are voluntarily repatriated" to their countries of origin, 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 the 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.

Between September 2015 and April 2017, some 5,001 asylum-seekers – just 14 percent of the 34,953 target – were relocated from Italy to 18 European countries, the UN's refugee agency said.

Italy's influential Catholic community Sant'Egidio said an EU directive dating from 2001, drawn up to offer temporary protection to those displaced by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, should be applied here.

"Isn't that the same situation we find ourselves in now in the Mediterranean?" Sant'Egidio head Marco Impagliazzo asked.    (AFP)

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