European interior ministers have held emergency talks on migration in the wake of a dispute between Paris and Rome over how to handle the thousands who continue to attempt to cross the Mediterranean.
The numbers of migrants arriving on Europe’s Mediterranean shores haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016. European capitals are nonetheless concerned about growing pressure on sea routes from north Africa and overland through the western Balkans.
With the onset of winter in eastern Europe, the EU is braced for many more war refugees fleeing Ukraine.
Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged rescue ship to dock with 234 migrants on board.
The Ocean Viking was eventually welcomed in the French port of Toulon. The authorities in Paris have criticised Rome’s stance.
In the wake of this dispute, France demanded Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 EU member states.
On the basis of the existing agreement, a dozen EU member states are supposed to share 8,000 asylum seekers, with France and Germany taking 3,500 each.
So far, only 117 of those who made landfall in Greece or Italy have been relocated.
In the wake of Italy’s refusal of responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it will not allow ships to arrive from Italian waters and also take in the 3,500 of its EU quota.
On Monday, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the Mediterranean route.
“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.
“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”
Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work.
“It is a waste of time,” she said.
Call for government-NGO cooperation
The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats frequently get into difficulties.
And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in efforts to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.
Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect for national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.
Other member states, including Germany, argue that there should be no limits on humanitarian operations: all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger.
Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”
He welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”
Concern over Balkan land routes
While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.
Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.
On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of all illegal arrivals in the bloc.
Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.