Malta plan for migrant relocation gets tepid reaction from EU ministers

Fast-track relocation plan for boat migrants recued at sea yet to gain traction from rest of EU member states

High representatives from Malta, Italy, France, and Germany met in Malta to discuss the EU’s migration policy
High representatives from Malta, Italy, France, and Germany met in Malta to discuss the EU’s migration policy

A draft plan agreed two weeks ago in Malta to distribute rescued migrants at sea failed to muster much support among EU states at a meeting of home affairs ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday.

France, Germany, Italy, and Malta are pushing for a fast-track plan to disembark and relocate people fleeing Libya by boat within four weeks after being rescued at sea.

But only Ireland, Luxembourg, and Portugal have agreed to back the initiative.

“We were seven yesterday, seven this morning and seven this evening. So things haven’t changed much,” Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s minister responsible for migration, told reporters.

The temporary proposal is meant to end stand-offs among EU states, sometimes forcing charity boats full of rescued migrants to wait for weeks before being able to port and offload the people.

Some 14 such stand-offs have surfaced since last summer, leading to feuds between member states and ad hoc arrangements with other member states to take in some 1,000 people who were transferred to EU states and Norway since June last year.

Italy had closed access and threatened massive fines under its former deputy prime minister, the far-right Matteo Salvini, who lost his position after a change in government.

Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece bemoaned the fact the four-country group that met in Malta only dealt with the problem of migrants rescued between Libya and Italy, and not those arriving in Europe in the eastern Mediterranean.

The EU commissioner for home affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, described it as a work in process to be discussed again on a technical level in Brussels. “We have to continue trying to convince member states. Behind closed doors today we had a very open and frank discussion,” he said.

Finland, which holds the EU presidency, said it was working to get more countries on board.

The UN convention on the law of the sea imposes legal obligations for states to establish and operate adequate search and rescue services, and is incorporated into the EU legal order.

But it remains unclear which migrants and asylum-seekers in Italy and Malta are to be distributed to other countries. France and the Netherlands say they are only willing to take in those people with a clear case for asylum or those with refugee status.

But Italy insists that all migrants must be entered into the distribution system and that their right to asylum must be resolved in destination countries.

Germany agrees: it would take far too long for Italy to clarify asylum questions on its own, adding that such a situation also would not provide any relief to the country.

But internal critics from the ruling CDU have attacked the plan, saying it will create a pull factor for migrants and human smugglers. “I’ve never heard stranger things being said at any time in my political career. It’s unfortunate, perhaps shameful, that we are having a debate like this over these kinds of numbers. It’s really shameful,” home affairs minister Horst Seehofer said

Roughly 2,000 people were rescued by private ships between Italy and Malta over the past 14 months. Of those 2,000, some 225 have come to Germany.

Seehofer promised that the number would not increase: “If people abuse the system, if hundreds become a thousand, I can simply declare an end to the emergency system. I would do that to ensure that we are not being taken advantage of by human traffickers.”