European interior ministers on Friday welcomed an EU plan to better coordinate the handling of migrant arrivals after a furious row over a private rescue ship erupted between Italy and France.
Every time a group of people seeking refuge in the European Union arrive along the bloc's external borders, debates heat up among EU nations squabbling over how to respond.
The latest of these turned into a political spat between France and Italy, sparked in early November when France allowed 234 rescued asylum seekers onboard the humanitarian ship Ocean Viking to disembark onto its terriroty after Italy refused them safe harbor.
French authorities criticized Italy's hard line on migration and accused Rome of breaching international law that highlights the importance of rescuing distressed people at sea. France also annound that it would no longer take in 3,000 migrants it had promised to accept from Italy.
Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said that while Italy did not intend to create such tensions, the pressure of dealing with migrant arrivals "shouldn't weigh only on the countries at the external border of Europe."
Though tensions between France and Italy cooled after the presidents of both nations called for "full cooperation" on a number of issues — including supporting each other in addressing migration challenges in the Mediterranean — the row shined a light on the issue of unequal distribution of migrats between EU nations.
EU interior ministers meeting
The bloc's interior ministers convened in Brussels on November 25, to discuss such migration challenges across the Union, and in hopes of ensuring that more countries do not get into political disagreements.
"We cannot continue working by addressing one crisis at a time or one ship at a time," Vice President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels. Schinas is coordinating the bloc's Migration and Asylum Pact.
"We need a sustainable European and asylum framework," he added.
Roberto Forin, Deputy Director of the Mixed Migration Centre, a migration data and research organization, told DW that arriving at a common solution to address migration and asylum is still a challenge for the EU.
"Major gridlock exists because countries like Italy and Greece — which border the Mediterranean sea — feel the burden of dealing with new migrant arrivals. It [that burden] has fallen on them since the 2015 migration crisis. So the recent approach by Italy towards migrants on the Ocean Viking vessel was sort of a signal to Brussels that Rome wants the EU to ensure countries share the burden of migration distrubution," he said.
At their meeting, the bloc's interior ministers addressed the issue and discussed the importance of increasing efforts to implement the solidarity mechanism that a number of EU nations including Italy, agreed to in June. Under this mechanism, asylum seekers can be relocated to another EU country after they have been registered in the country of entry, in order to share the responsibility of migration distribution.
But Forin pointed out that Italy's harsh migration stance is also based on internal politics.
"Every time a change of government takes place in Italy and an anti-immigration political party takes over the government, as is the case now, we see Italy immediately colliding with the rest of Europe on migration," he added.
Italy's hardline stance on migration
According to a November 2022 report by the UN's refugee agency UNHCR, more than 90,000 people seeking asylum have arrived at Italy's ports this year — a 55% increase compared to last year.
But migrant sea arrivals are a contentious issue for the Italian government, which says ocean migration has made Italy a magnet for migrants seeking to enter Europe illegally.
In her first speech to members of the Italian parliament last month, the country's newly-elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who belongs to the country's right-wing Brothers of Italy political party, said she would stop migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean illegally.
Before Meloni's speech, Interior Minister Piantedosi also floated the idea of closing ports to rescue boats that carried migrants to the ports of Italy. While ports have not been closed, the Italian government has called on the EU to develop a code of conduct for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that support asylum seekers and rescue people distressed at sea.
"Preventing rescue boats from docking in Italian ports and pressurising NGOs is nothing new. It was something Italy's 2019 Interior Minister Matteo Salvini did when he closed Italian waters to migrant-rescue ships," Forin pointed out.
"Since then, conversations on increased cooperation with non-EU countries like Libya intensified in Italy. The idea was that countries like Libya could also play a role in preventing rescue ships from leaving or transiting through their waters, in turn halting new migrant arrivals," he said.
What else is the EU proposing?
Improving cooperation with countries in North Africa to prevent departures into the Mediterranean Sea is also a part of the European Commission's latest action planto address migration challenges in the Central Mediterranean.
As a part of the plan, which the Commission released on November 21, the EU aims to spend at least €580 million ($604 million) between 2021 and 2023, to support North African countries in migration management.
Yet, many NGOs slammed the plan.
“This plan is just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work. It merely distracts from what actually needs to be done — fixing the EU's broken asylum system. It is a waste of time," Stephanie Pope, Oxfam's EU migration expert said in an e-mail.
"The EU's response to those fleeing Ukraine shows that where there is political will, there is a way. Instead, the EU continues to throw money at non-EU countries to try to get them to play a role in building fortress Europe. These efforts would be far better spent on investing in proper housing for asylum seekers, creating a functioning asylum system and making migration rules that share the responsibility of welcoming people in Europe," she added.
Discussing the feasilbility of the Central Mediterranean Action Plan as a way to prevent more escaltions between countries over migration distribution was an important point of focus when EU interior ministers gathered in Brussels.
But they also discussed how the plan could be used as a model to tackle more migration challenges along the Western Balkans migration route.
"Migration does not necessarily have to be an issue that toxifies politics. We need to bring some normality to the migration debate," Schinas told reporters after their meeting, adding that Europe should be a part of the solution, not the problem.
Concrete decisions on dealing with migration issues across the bloc will be finalized at a follow-up meeting on December 8.
Author: Priyanka Shankar
First published: November 25, 2022
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