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Mediterranean migration issue has become 'very emotional', commissioner says

  • Stop bickering, start acting - Malmstrom tells member states (Photo: European Commission)

Member states should resettle Africans fleeing Libya rather than indulge in blame games about the plight of refugees trying to reach the EU, home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said in an interview.

Speaking to the EUobserver in her office on Thursday (7 April), Malmstrom said she was deeply disturbed by the news that 250 people fleeing Libya, mostly sub-Saharan refugees, drowned when trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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"It is absolutely horrible, you'd have to be made out of stone not to be touched by this. Also the fact that there are people taking advantage of this, selling tickets for these overcrowded boats, with no life vests on board."

But she warned against member states sniping at one another. Italian minister Roberto Maroni earlier on Thursday suggested it was Malta's fault for not sending rescue ships in time. For their part, the Maltese armed forces said that the boat was three times closer to Lampedusa than Malta.

"There is an investigation ongoing," Malmstrom said. "Everybody agrees there was rough weather and rescue teams had troubles reaching them in time. We shouldn't engage in any blame games about it."

Instead, member states should respond to the calls of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to resettle thousands of sub-Saharan people from Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea who managed to escape Libya and are now in refugee camps in Tunisia and Egypt, but cannot be sent back home.

"I call upon all member states to resettle refugees identified by the UNHCR and in need of international protection. They are the most vulnerable group during the Libyan war and we must also show solidarity with Tunisia and Egypt, where most of them have fled to," she said.

Malmstrom's home country Sweden has already signalled willingness to take 200 refugees and so have "seven to eight other member states", she said, without wanting to name names as negotiations with the UNHCR are still ongoing.

"Several states have quota systems for asylum seekers, so they said they would use up all the quotas for these people and see from there if there's need for more," she said, naming Sweden as an example.

The appeal is repeated in a letter Malmstrom sent to interior ministers ahead of a key-meeting in Luxembourg next Monday (11 April).

"The continuous and possible increase of flows of refugees, in need of international protection, coming from Libyan territory, is also an issue of major concern. (...) The commission is ready to review with member states willing to engage in such resettlement efforts all the possibilities for financial support," the document reads.

Malmstrom also appeals to both ministers and the European Parliament to "rapidly reach an agreement" on the establishment of an EU resettlement programme, currently blocked in the council of ministers.

On the activation of the temporary refugee status for people fleeing Libya, as requested by Malta, Malmstrom said: "It is not the case yet. There are perhaps over 2000 refugees from Libya, 800 in Malta - which is a lot for a tiny island, but not enough to trigger this mechanism."

The special refugee status was set up after the Kosovo war, but never applied, and would allow EU states to grant automatic refugee status to tens or hundreds of thousands people coming from a warzone.

"There are also other ways member states can show their solidarity with Malta. For instance, contributing in the resettlement programme, we had that pilot project in Malta and it worked well," she said.

When asked about what she expects to come out of the Monday meeting, Malmstrom said: "The immigration issue has become very emotional. There are other items on the agenda, but this is likely to take up most of the day."

France and Italy are already sparring over the issue. Rome has been granting humanitarian permits to Tunisians but random border checks by France has reportedly seen the same refugees sent back to Italy. Under Schengen rules, border checks can no longer be made, unless they are random and prompted by a security threat.

France said it was going to challenge the legality of those permits and ask the commission to look into it.

"Member states can give temporary residence permits to anyone they want," Malmstrom said. "If it allows the holder to cross borders, it has to respect the Schengen rules - have a valid travel document, not be registered in the SIS database, be able to sustain themselves financially and not be a threat to security. They also have to be issued on a case-by-case basis."

Interior ministers will also look at longer-term measures with Tunisia and Egypt, such as helping them set up a democratic border control and asylum system, fight traffickers and offering them visa facilitation and mobility programmes.

Public opinion poll on whether EU member states should resettle refugees

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS (7 April 2011) EU officials are calling on EU member states this week to take in refugees from Libya, predominantly from sub-Sahara. Sweden has already said it will welcome some 200. How do EU citizens feel about this? The EUobserver went face to face to find out.

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