2nd Dec 2023

Cool reception to compulsory EU sharing of asylum 'burden'

  • Thousands of African migrants risk their life crossing the Mediterranean to the EU every year (Photo: European Commission)

Italy, which has been under fire for its treatment of migrants in particular since in May it forcibly returned hundreds of people intercepted in its territorial waters to Libya, has called for "obligatory burden sharing" among EU member states when it comes to taking in asylum seekers.

On Thursday (4 June), EU interior ministers meeting in Luxembourg discussed how to tackle the increasing number of migrants coming from the Mediterranean, especially to particular member states such as Italy and Malta.

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Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League, said before the meeting that proposals made recently by the European Commission in that respect were "interesting, but ... not sufficient."

"We asked for obligatory burden sharing, the proposal foresees a voluntary system ... so those who don't want to needn't take in any refugees," Mr Maroni told journalists.

In an interview with the Financial Times on the same day, Lawrence Gonzi, the prime minister of Malta – the small island state of some 400,000 people in the Mediterranean Sea – also re-iterated calls for more help from the European Union.

But while Mediterranean countries also including Greece and Cyprus have repeatedly called for more action at EU level, northern member states have been rather reluctant.

Voluntary assistance

A consensus on putting in place an obligatory burden-sharing system seems unlikely for now, the Czech EU presidency indicated.

"Some ministers ... said they would welcome an obligatory system. On the other hand, other countries have problems with that," Czech interior minister Martin Pecina said at a press conference in Luxembourg.

"There will be probably some help offered on a voluntary basis," he said, adding that "large member states" had already indicated they could provide some assistance.

EU justice commissioner Jacques Barrot also underlined that "all efforts at solidarity will be on voluntary basis."

He added that his office would "draw up a pilot proposal that will help Malta" deal with the increasing number of migrants arriving on its soil.

That intra-community relocation programme would also be "on a voluntary basis," he stressed.

Meanwhile, some member states insisted that taking in larger numbers of migrants would not deal fundamentally with the issue of Africans coming to Europe.

"There is no quick fix to the problems at the southern sea border and the Mediterranean as a whole: we have to work with long-term goals, we have to see to it that we develop good co-operation with countries of transit and origin," said Swedish interior minister Tobias Billstrom, whose country will take over the EU's rotating presidency next month.

His German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaeuble, said that the situation would not change so long as the main driver of migration, namely poverty in the migrants' countries, is not been addressed.

"We can't solve the problem of poverty by bringing them all into Europe," Mr Schaeuble was quoted as saying by German news agency DPA.

NGOs slam Italy

The bloc's ministers were also set to discuss measures aimed at creating a common system for asylum-seekers across the EU that were presented by the European Commission in December and approved by MEPs last month.

Ahead of the meeting, human right groups called on EU states to set high standards of protection for refugees and asylum seekers, and were especially critical of the actions recently taken by Italy.

"States have a legitimate right to control their borders. However, forcibly returning people to countries where they possibly face serious violations of their human rights and may be pushed further back into the hands of their persecutors contravenes international law," the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) – a network of 69 refugee-assisting organisations in 30 European countries, said on Wednesday.

Since fundamental rights are part of the EU's founding principles, member states violating them "risk a suspension of certain rights derived from membership of the EU," it warned.

Human rights NGO Amnesty International and the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) issued similar statements.

The Italian government's decision in May to return migrants to Libya "without any assessment of their protection needs ... is in clear violation of international human rights standards and the EU and its member states must urgently call on Italy to put an immediate end to such policies," ENAR said.

"The EU has the potential and the capacity to develop a Common European Asylum System that could serve as a model to other regions in the world. It is time for the EU to live up to expectations and to ensure that the right to asylum is respected in practice," said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International's EU Office.

The discussions on the new European legislation in the field of asylum and refugee protection will not lead to any immediate result, however.

Nothing is expected to be given a final approval for many months to come, making it unlikely for the EU to update its asylum policy before 2012.

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