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20th Oct 2018

Ministers hit impasse on migrant plans

  • Boat migrants await rescue by Italian coastguard (Photo: iom.int)

Efforts to reach an agreement on a plan to distribute asylum seekers across member states hit an impasse on Tuesday (16 June).

Interior ministers in Luxembourg were unable to reach a consensus on whether the distribution plans should be mandatory.

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  • Ministers failed to reach agreement in Luxembourg (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The European Commission in late April had proposed a binding scheme to distribute 40,000 asylum seekers arriving in Italy and Greece over a two-year period.

It also proposed resettling 20,000 UN-recognised refugees.

Billed as an emergency measure to alleviate both countries of the large number of migrants arriving at their respective shores, the plan remains stuck on the issue.

Eastern European countries, including Poland, oppose binding rules, while Germany and Austria back them. Britain, Ireland, and Denmark aren't taking part based on opt-ins and opt-outs.

“There is no common view on whether it should be voluntary or compulsory. There is also a divergence of views on what criteria used to calculate these quotas,” Latvia’s interior minister, Rihards Kozlovskis, speaking on the behalf of the EU presidency, told reporters.

Kozlovskis said the decision “on basic principles” like solidarity need to be made at the head of state and government level. He then wished the upcoming Luxembourg EU presidency luck in finding a “common agreement”.

The commission wants the issue resolved before the end of July.

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice-president, told this website that there is no other plan should national governments vote it down.

“The commission will maintain its proposal and has no reason to change it,” he said.

He put a brave face on the debate, noting he didn’t get the impression that member states had fundamental objections.

“There might be some discussions about the factors we apply, the weighing of different criteria, there might be a discussion about that but I haven’t heard any challenging the fundamental elements,” he said.

The commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, made similar points and insisted no changes to the criteria or the binding nature of the plan would be acceptable.

“We shall defend to the end our proposal,” he said in Luxembourg.

Some 100,000 migrants have arrived in Italy and Greece since the start of the year. Another 1,800 have died in the attempt.

Human Rights Watch’s deputy director Judith Sutherland told EUobserver around 60 percent are fleeing persecution and war. Of those some 30 percent are Syrian nationals, followed by Eritreans, Afghans, and Somalians.

Most try to slip by Italian and Greek authorities because they prefer to lodge their asylum applications in other member states.

Bordering countries France and Austria are sending anyone they catch back to Italy. But neither country is allowed to impose systematic border control checks under EU freedom of movement rules.

Meanwhile, police on Tuesday forcibly removed some 300 migrants on the Italian side of the border with France.

A Belgian minister on Tuesday also noted that the country has for the first time started to see Somali nationals seeking refuge.

Others who are fleeing poverty have little chance of obtaining asylum, but are also unlikely to be returned.

Around 425,000 migrants received a return decision in 2013 but of those less than half left. Moroccans, Pakistanis, Albanians, and Russians topped the list of return decisions.

Despite the EU having readmission agreements with 17 countries, last year’s return rate also remained low at just over 30 percent.

“Smuggling networks often play on this fact,” pointed out Avramopoulos.

The commission wants to speed up the fingerprinting and identification of disembarking migrants and is dispatching so-called hotspot teams to areas most affected.

It also stepped up search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean by giving the EU’s border agency, Frontex, more money and personnel.

The agency is co-ordinating, along with the Italian authorities, an operation to pluck migrants from the sea with the help of participating member states.

But the UK is now threatening to withdraw the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Bulwark, from the operation.

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