MDINA: The leaders of nine Mediterranean and southern European countries have called for a “significant increase” in the EU’s efforts to tackle the thorny issue of migration at its roots, in origin and transit countries.
The leaders met in Malta the day after EU interior ministers in Brussels finally made headway on new rules for how the bloc handles asylum seekers and illegal immigration.
A sharp rise in migrants landing on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this month has reignited tensions within the bloc and provided new impetus to reach an agreement.
Tackling illegal migration calls for “a sustained and holistic European response”, the leaders of Croatia, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Slovenia and a representative of Spain said in a joint statement.
“We recall the need for a significant increase in the EU’s efforts on the external dimension front, with a renewed approach to effectively reduce primary movements and prevent departures,” it said.
Meloni’s hard-right government, elected a year ago on an anti-migrant ticket, has clashed with both France and Germany as she presses the EU to take greater responsibility.
After a meeting with France’s President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Malta, Meloni told media she saw “a will, on paper at least,” to act as a bloc.
It is “something that has to be done on a European level to be really effective,” she insisted.
So far this year, the number of arrivals in Italy has surpassed 133,000, almost double the number during the same period last year, according to the interior ministry.
As thousands of migrants slept on cots in the open air in Lampedusa’s overwhelmed reception centre two weeks ago, von der Leyen unveiled a 10-point plan to help Rome deal with the crisis.
Von der Leyen’s plan includes the possible expansion of naval missions in the Mediterranean – missions Meloni said should be run “in agreement with North African authorities”.
After sharp words in both Italy and France on how to handle the issue, Macron and Meloni have sought to ease tensions in recent days, and a French presidential source said the countries had a “shared vision of the management of the migration question”.
Some 90 migrants landed in three boats Friday on Lampedusa, a tiny island close to the Tunisian coast, the first port of call for many of those crossing from North Africa to Europe.
As well as tensions with France, Rome has criticised Germany for funding charity rescue ships operating in the Central Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest sea crossing for migrants.
Italy has suggested charity ships sailing under foreign flags should be forced under EU rules to disembark them in their own countries, Meloni said Friday.
But according to Italian media reports, the amendment was rejected by interior ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday.
DEATHS AT SEA
At least 990 migrants died or went missing in the crossing between June and August this year, three times that recorded in the same period last year, the UN’s agency for children UNICEF said.
At least 289 children have died so far this year trying to make the crossing, with UNICEF warning the Mediterranean had become a “cemetery for children and their future”.
Both Meloni and Macron also want to prevent boats from departing, by working more closely with Tunisia, despite questions over the country’s human rights standards and treatment of migrants.
The European Commission said last week it was set to release the first instalment of funds to Tunisia – one of the main launching points for boats – under a plan signed this year to bolster its coastguard and tackle traffickers.
The EU deal with Tunisia was already producing “very important signs of collaboration”, Meloni said, adding that it was “a model to be used in general with North African countries”.
The bloc already signed a deal in 2017 with Libya, although critics say getting both countries to intercept and forcibly return boats makes the EU complicit in abuses.
Rescue charity Sea Watch said Friday its surveillance plane Seabird had witnessed a Libyan coastguard boat – a vessel gifted by Italy – ramming a migrant dinghy carrying some 50 people.
The EU is poised to agree a revamped Pact on Migration and Asylum, which will seek to relieve pressure on frontline countries such as Italy and Greece by relocating some arrivals to other EU states.