BFF-73 European countries reach deal to share Aquarius migrants

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EUROPE-MIGRANTS-AQUARIUS,UPDATE

European countries reach deal to share Aquarius migrants

ROME, Aug 14, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Five European countries on Tuesday offered
to take in the 141 migrants marooned on board the Aquarius rescue vessel
after it was given permission to dock in Malta, resolving a new standoff over
the charity ship.

Spain offered to take 60 people and Germany said it would take “up to 50”.

France said it would accept 60 from the Aquarius as well as a second rescue
boat that arrived earlier in Malta, and Portugal offered to welcome 30
people. Luxembourg was also part of the deal.

The agreement is the fifth of its kind between Western European governments
since June when Italy began turning away migrant rescue ships.

EU sources said the five host countries would send immigration officials to
Malta to vet their asylum claims and identify possible economic migrants, who
would be returned to their countries of origin.

The boat was initially refused entry by Italy and Malta after rescuing the
migrants in two separate missions off the Libyan coast on Friday.

The Aquarius first hit the headlines in June after being stranded with 630
migrants on board, causing a major diplomatic row.

Spain’s new Socialist government helped resolve the first standoff by
allowing the boat to dock in Valencia and said it was again at the forefront
of the solution to the latest one on Tuesday.

“Spain has coordinated a pioneering agreement with six countries to share
the hosting of the people on the Aquarius… Spain will take 60 people,”
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez wrote on Twitter.

But Malta and France said the deal to allow the ship disembark its
passengers, many of them unaccompanied teens from violence-wracked Somalia
and repressive Eritrea, was their initiative.

“Malta will be making a concession allowing the vessel to enter its ports,
despite having no legal obligation to do so,” said a Maltese government
statement posted on Twitter.

Thanking Malta for its gesture, French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on
Twitter: “There is no alternative to cooperation.”

But EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos warned that Europe
could not rely on “ad-hoc arrangements”.

Calling in a statement for “sustainable solutions”, he said: “It is not the
responsibility of one or a few member states only, but of the European Union
as a whole.”

– European attitudes hardening –

After elections in March that brought a populist, anti-immigrant government
to power in Italy, far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini began turning
away rescue ships operated by foreign NGOs.

For years, Italy had pleaded with its EU partners for help with a massive
influx of arrivals that has seen 700,000 people land in the country since
2013, most of whom had made the short but treacherous sea crossing from
Libya.

On Saturday, Salvini said the Aquarius would “never see an Italian port”
again, accusing it of encouraging smugglers and migrants to take to the water
in the knowledge that they will be rescued.

The Italian coast guard continues to rescue migrants, however.

Malta’s government initially defended its decision to turn the Aquarius
away, saying it was “neither the coordinating nor the competent authority for
such a rescue” and had “no legal obligation” to provide a place of safety.

The government of the British territory of Gibraltar also announced late
Monday that the ship would no longer be allowed to operate under its maritime
flag.

The increasingly hostile stance reflects hardening public opinion in Europe
towards migrants — despite arrivals dipping sharply since 2015, when over a
million people fleeing war or poverty crossed the Mediterranean.

The Aquarius has become a symbol of the unwillingness of many European
countries to accept more newcomers, with Italy siding with conservative
governments in eastern Europe intent on keeping out migrants.

At a summit in late June EU leaders agreed to consider setting up migrant
processing centres outside the bloc, most likely in North Africa, in a bid to
discourage them from boarding smuggler boats.

They also agreed to look at setting up “controlled centres” on European
soil to sort refugees in need of protection from economic migrants — but no
country has offered to host any such centres.

The proposals are due for discussion at an EU migration summit in Austria
in September.

BSS/AFP/MRI/2252 hrs