Tensions between France and Italy over the issue of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean are the focus of an extraordinary meeting this Friday in Brussels, Belgium. European interior ministers are meeting in the capital of the European Union (EU) as they worry about the rise in arrivals via the Western Balkan route.
The numbers do not reach the level of the migration crisis of 2015-2016. But the possibility of a new wave of Ukrainians arriving this winter, millions of whom are without electricity and heating due to strikes in Russia, is also fueling European fears.
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The meeting was convened at the request of Paris following the recent crisis with Rome over the humanitarian ship Ocean Viking and its 234 migrants. The ship finally landed in France on November 11 in an “exceptional order” after Meloni’s far-right Italian government in Georgia refused to take her in.
Better coordination with countries of origin and transit
These tensions have revived a very sensitive debate about solidarity among EU countries on migration issues, while a reform introduced two years ago by the European Commission has stalled. In response to the attitude that Rome considers “unacceptable”, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced that he was suspending France’s planned admission of 3,500 asylum seekers to Italy. Georgia Meloni called the reaction “unjustified”, recalling that her country has taken in almost 90,000 migrants this year.
These “resettlements” are planned within the framework of the temporary mechanism of European solidarity approved in June, which was initiated by France itself during its semi-annual presidency of the EU Council. A dozen countries have pledged to receive about 8,000 asylum seekers during the year, France and Germany – 3,500 each. So far, only about a hundred resettlements have been carried out. But in Paris, the interior ministry no longer wants “a situation where the same state (France) is called upon to receive vessels on its territory, as well as to carry out redeployment from other Member States”.
In an attempt to restart this mechanism, the Commission on Monday presented an action plan for the central Mediterranean. It aims, in particular, to strengthen cooperation with countries of origin and transit, in particular Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, in order to prevent the departure and increase the number of returns of illegal migrants. The plan also aims to improve cooperation on maritime rescue between Member States, as well as with non-governmental organizations operating humanitarian vessels, and to “promote discussion within the International Maritime Organization” (IMO) of “linear rules for those vessels that carry out Rescue work at sea.
130,000 arrivals through the Western Balkans
For Paris, it is a question of “how best to frame the actions of NGOs”. “The idea is not to ban everything or allow everything,” but “there is currently an ambiguity about these rights and obligations” of NGOs, says an Interior Ministry official. Italy, like Greece, Malta and Cyprus, is pointing the finger at humanitarian organizations whose “private vessels operate in complete autonomy from the competent public authorities.”
Germany refuses to impose restrictions on the actions of these ships carrying out rescue operations at sea. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, for his part, recalled that since the beginning of the year in the Mediterranean Sea “almost 2,000 people have died or are missing.” . This Italian official emphasized the “vital importance of maritime rescue by all involved.”
But some member states, including the rotating EU presidency of the Czech Republic, are more concerned about another migration route: the route through the Western Balkans, the source of nearly 130,000 illegal entries into the EU since the beginning of the year, according to the border agency Frontex, an increase of 160 %. This route is the source of “more than half of the illegal migrants arriving in the EU,” said Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan.