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7/7/2017 8:26:22 AM

EU ministers pledge steps to tackle migrant flood

EU interior ministers on Thursday (July 6th) pledged to back an urgent European Commission plan to help crisis-hit Italy, which has been overwhelmed by a wave of migrants arriving by sea from North Africa.

Ministers from across the bloc gathered in the Estonian capital Tallinn after Italy, which has accepted around 85,000 of the 100,000 people who have arrived this year, appealed desperately for help.

The EU wants to help the Libyan authorities set up a joint rescue coordination centre in the conflict-ravaged country. (AFP/Taha JAWASHI)

At the close of the talks, ministers issued a rare written statement, saying: "The situation in the Central Mediterranean and the resulting pressure on Italy is of great concern to all member states."

The move was hailed by Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti.

"There has been a recognition of the question raised by Italy," he said of the talks that were chaired by Estonia, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Most of those landing in Italy are sub-Saharan Africans who have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya, a journey that has so far claimed more than 2,200 lives this year, UN figures show.

In recent weeks, Italy has stepped up calls for help, pleading with its European partners to make a "concrete contribution" by opening their ports to rescue ships to share the burden.

At the end of June, Italy threatened to stop vessels from other countries disembarking rescued migrants at its ports.

And the influx has exacerbated tensions with neighbouring Austria, which this week threatened to send troops to its border with Italy to stop migrants entering.

Central to Thursday's talks was a European Commission plan which earmarks €35 million (US$40 million) in aid for Rome as well as proposals for working with Libya and other countries to stem the flow of migrants at source.

Ministers expressed support for the plan as well as for a proposed "code of conduct" to regulate non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on rescue missions patrolling off the coast of Libya.

Despite their humanitarian mission, aid groups have come under fire with some critics saying their presence is like a magnet encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.

But the groups say that not acting would risk lives with smugglers putting migrants out to sea in increasingly unseaworthy vessels with little fuel or water.

'MISSION BANKRUPTCY'

Meanwhile in Rome, top diplomats from the EU and Africa met officials from the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) over the ongoing crisis.

The talks grouped foreign ministers from Libya, Niger, Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia and Sudan with their counterparts from Germany, Austria, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Malta and Estonia.

"In order to lower the number of people arriving here, we must reduce the number arriving in Libya," Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said after the talks.

"If border controls in transit countries are effective, then the 'tickets' sold by the biggest criminal travel agency in history would lose their value.

"If the traffickers can't guarantee an arrival in Europe, their travel agency would go bankrupt," he said. "That is our mission."

Earlier, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said all actions would "focus first and foremost" on Libya. "The priority must be finding a solution to the crisis in this key country," he said.

The ministers ended by issuing a statement calling for investment to help young people and women in the countries of origin, as well as supporting beefed up border controls in such countries.

They also agreed to help the UN refugee agency and the IOM increase their presence along the migrant trail and develop communication strategies to warn potential migrants about the dangers of the journey.

'TIMID' EU RESPONSE?

Unveiled on Tuesday, the European plan proposes support for the Libyan authorities through a joint rescue coordination centre which would improve the rescue efforts with Libya's coastguard and offer it better training and equipment.

It also proposes to help Libya strengthen control over its porous southern border while working with Egypt, Niger, Ethiopia and Sudan to improve the repatriation process for migrants who don't meet the criteria for international protection.

But an analysis by the Eurasia Group think tank said the EU's response was likely to be "timid" with the new measures expected to only "marginally stem the migrant flow".

Under the EU's asylum policy, asylum seekers are supposed to be processed in the country where they first arrive./.

VNF/AFP  
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