New moves to stop migrants in Central Mediterranean
Unconventional measures to stop the flow from Libya, tension around Brenner Pass remains
22 July, 2017
A rescuer from the NGO ship `Open Arms` flying Spanish flag helps a child as migrants arrive at the port of Porto Empedocle in Sicily, Italy,13 July.
The inflow of illegal migrants via the Central Mediterranean route continues to grow, according to Frontex data, and this has produced some unconventional solutions at European level last week but has also triggered escalation in tension among affected Member States.
According to data published by Frontex last week, in June the number of migrants arriving in Italy through the Central Mediterranean route rose by 8% from May to 24,800. This brought the total for the first six months of the year to 85,000, 21% higher than the figure from the same period of 2016.
EU foreign ministers agreed last Monday to allow member countries to restrict sales of inflatable boats and outboard motors to Libya, if there are "reasonable grounds" to suspect they will be used by people smugglers and human traffickers. Fishermen, and others who have legitimate needs for the dinghies and motors will still be able to import them, the statement said.
The foreign ministers also agreed to extend a border aid mission in Libya through the end of 2018 that helps Libyan security forces, notably in the south part of the country, ravaged by chaos. HR/VP Federica Mogherini said that thanks to the EU support to the work of the IOM and the UNHCR, there were in first 5-6 months of 2017 around 5,000 assisted voluntary returns of migrants from inside Libya to their countries of origin.
At the same time, last weekend the European Commission and the EU border agency Frontex approved a code of conduct drafted by Italy for ships run by non-governmental organisations rescuing migrants in the central Mediterranean off Libya. The code is intended to help stem a ceaseless tide of arrivals that has strained Italian reception capacity to the limit, ANSA reported. The code sets 11 rules. These include a ban on phoning "to facilitate the departure of boats carrying migrants", the obligation to allow police aboard and a requirement to have a technical certification to carry out rescues. The first rule is the "absolute prohibition" for humanitarian ships to enter Libyan waters, which can only be reached "if there is a clear danger for human life at sea". Those who refuse to sign the code may not get authorisation to access Italian ports.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic tensions between Italy and Austria over the passage of migrants at the Brenner border pass have intensified. Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka was quoted by Bild as saying last Tuesday that Vienna was ready to close its border with Italy at the Brenner Pass within a day if migrant arrivals get too high. The tension comes after the Sunday Times reported Italy was considering giving 200,000 migrants humanitarian visas to travel in Europe, a report denied by Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano.
Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Mario Giro told ANSA that Vienna should "tone things down".
He noted that relations between Member States should not be endangered by "pre-election polemics". Austria will hold elections on 16 October. He described the threat to close the Brenner Pass as "surreal".