Italy reaches deal to crack down on migrant rescue boats
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Italy has reached a deal with France and Germany to tighten the regulation of charities operating in the Mediterranean and to increase funds to the Libyan coast guard, in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants arriving at Italian ports.
The agreement follows an ultimatum by Italy to fellow EU member states last week in which Rome threatened to shut its ports to foreign boats carrying asylum seekers, unless it got more help in tackling the migration crisis.
At a working dinner in Paris on Sunday night, the interior ministers of Italy, France and Germany, failed to address all of Rome’s concerns —— notably its desire to see other EU countries directly take in migrants rescued at sea, without them passing through Italy.
But they did make headway on some aspects of migration policy, which they want to place at the top of the agenda of EU interior ministers due to meet in Estonia at the end of the week.
“All of Italy is mobilised to face the flows and we are asking to share this with the EU. This is necessary to be faithful to our history and our principles,” Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s centre-left prime minister, said on Monday. “We need to avoid these flows becoming unsustainable, fuelling hostile reactions in our society,” he added.
More than 83,000 migrants — from countries ranging from Guinea to Bangladesh — have arrived in Italy by sea in the first half of the year, a 19 per cent increase on the same period in 2016, which was itself a record year.
One of the most controversial aspects of the migration crisis this year has been the proliferation of charity groups operating rescue boats off the Libyan coast, which critics see as a “pull factor” that is attracting migrants and enticing smugglers.
In a joint press statement on Monday, Rome, Paris and Berlin said they had agreed that Italy should develop a “code of conduct” for non-governmental organisations working in the central Mediterranean.
Although the details of the regulatory crackdown have not been released, officials in Rome have been considering barring NGOs from entering Libyan territorial waters, forcing them to limit communication with migrant boats, and encouraging them to co-ordinate more closely with the Italian coast guard. Non-Italian boats failing to comply with these guidelines would no longer be allowed to dock in Italy.
The move is likely to be controversial, as NGOs have said they are being used as “scapegoats” for an intractable problem and their mission is only to limit the damage of migration and save lives. More than 2,000 migrants are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year.
Other points agreed by Italy, France and Germany include additional funding for the Libyan coast guard to intercept and turn back migrant boats while they are still in their territorial waters. This is also contentious because critics believe that the Libyan coast guard often uses violent methods to turn back ships sometimes in violation of the migrants’ human rights.
The three largest eurozone countries also vowed “concrete options” to monitor Libya’s southern border, a key crossing point in the Sahara desert for migrants coming from other parts of Africa, and promised to ramp up the EU’s migrant relocation scheme, which has struggled amid resistance from many member states.
However, one of Italy’s top priorities — a full-scale revision of EU asylum rules so that migrants are not forced to request asylum in Italy when they arrive in the country — is unlikely to be granted any time soon.
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