Date: Tuesday, 04 July 2017
(Adds Timmermans, NGO comments)
Tue Jul 4, 2017 5:34pm GMT
STRASBOURG, July 4 (Reuters) - The EU executive offered Italy more funding on Tuesday to help deal with Mediterranean migrants and said private rescue boats working off Libya should review their operations to avoid encouraging people to take to sea.
The European Commission announced 35 million euros ($40 million) in extra cash for Rome in response to Italian demands that its neighbours share more of the burden of handling thousands of people coming by boat every week. It also set out a list of other measures for EU ministers to discuss on Thursday.
Among the proposals was that Italy draft a code of conduct for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) running rescue services off Libya.
Frans Timmermans, the Commission's deputy head, told reporters after the commissioners' weekly meeting, that this was in part because their activities might be a "pull factor" -- encouraging people to risk their lives in flimsy dinghies in the hope of being picked up and then ferried over to Italy.
The Commission plan calls for beefing up Libya's coastal rescue services -- something Europeans hope may curb the number of people picked up close to shore by international charities.
Despite criticism of abuses by coastguards employed by Libya's shaky, U.N.-backed government, European officials argue that better local rescue services would mean more migrants being taken back to Libya or perhaps to neighbouring Tunisia or Egypt.
Human rights groups have been critical of EU governments, noting a jump in the death rate and more than 2,000 drownings so far this year off Libya; many want Europe to give safe passage to refugees, though some governments fear this would boost their anti-immigration opponents.
Human Rights Watch said a similar set of proposals agreed on Sunday by the Italian, French and German governments along with the Commission "fall far short" and were "awful for people fleeing Libya" and its "abusive conditions ... and conflicts".
It said France and Spain could help by having rescue ships dock there, rather than in Italy, where more than 85,000 people have arrived so far this year. Paris and Madrid have responded cautiously to Italy's warning that it might close its own ports.
Timmermans and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on other member states to make good on two-year-old pledges to take in more refugees from Italy and Greece. An EU deal with Turkey last year has staunched flows that saw a million people reach Greece in 2015 but numbers reaching Italy from anarchic Libya are higher than last year.
"The focus of our efforts has to be on solidarity – with those fleeing war and persecution and with our Member States under the most pressure," Juncker said in a statement.
"At the same time, we need to act, in support of Libya, to fight smugglers and enhance border control to reduce the number of people taking hazardous journeys to Europe."
The Commission reaffirmed its readiness to mobilise EU agencies and personnel to help the Italians. It said a 46-million-euro project with Italy would bolster Libya's ability to make good on promises to help curb migrant traffic.
The EU also pledged to step up or otherwise enhance a range of other measures, including deportations of failed asylum-seekers, combat smuggling networks and fund African countries from which people are fleeing poverty hoping for work in Europe.
Italy, the Commission said, should speed up its processing of asylum claims and deportations of those rejected. (Reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Gareth Jones)
© Thomson Reuters 2017 All rights reserved
* New tensions within EU over burden-sharing on migrants
* Over 85,000 migrants have reached Italian shores this year
* Austria fears many will head its way via border with Italy (Adds Italy summoning Austrian ambassador, Austrian minister radio interview)
Tue Jul 4, 2017 2:53pm GMT
VIENNA, July 4 (Reuters) - Austria is planning to impose border controls and possibly deploy troops to cut the number of migrants crossing from Italy, defence officials said, drawing a protest from Rome and reigniting a row over Europe's handling of the refugee crisis.
Tensions between European Union countries over how to share the burden of migrants flared in 2015 when hundreds of thousands, many fleeing wars in Africa and the Middle East, began arriving in EU territory, mainly via Greece, and headed for Germany, Austria and other nearby affluent states.
Austria took in more than 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers at the time, which helped increase popular support for the far-right Freedom Party. Keen to avoid another influx, it said it would introduce controls at the busy Brenner Pass border crossing with Italy if one materialised there.
That has not yet happened but Italy recently asked other EU countries to help it cope with a surge in migrants reaching its southern Mediterranean shores from Africa, raising concern in Austria that many will soon show up at its border with Italy.
That is a political hot potato in Austria, where a parliamentary election is scheduled in October with immigration shaping up as a central issue.
Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil told the mass-circulation Kronen Zeitung in an interview published on Tuesday that he expected restrictions would be introduced along the Alpine boundary with Italy "very soon".
A ministry spokesman said the controls would include the Brenner Pass and that four armoured vehicles had already been deployed to the area to block roads, with 750 troops poised to be brought in within 72 hours to deal with emergencies.
"These are not battle tanks. These are armoured vehicles without weapons which could block roads. These were already used during the refugee crisis of 2015/16 at the Spielfeld border crossing (with Slovenia)," he said.
Italy's foreign ministry said it had summoned the Austrian ambassador "following the Austrian government's statement about deploying troops" - a rare rebuke to a fellow EU member.
Austria coordinated with nearby Balkan countries last year to effectively close what was then the main route into Europe for migrants. The move drew complaints at the time that it was undermining the EU's principle of free movement, though Vienna says it did what it had to do to safeguard its borders.
Italy, alongside other states on the bloc's fringes, has complained it is now bearing the brunt and the cost of the migrant crisis. It said last year that any plans to introduce controls at the Brenner Pass, a major road and rail link between northern and southern Europe, would break EU law.
Doskozil said the EU was not doing enough to stem the migrant flow. "The situation should stir all of us into action," he told ORF radio. If the EU does not manage to jointly find solutions, he added, "national measures will be necessary".
Doskozil's spokesman said there was no concrete timetable for the new controls on the Italian border. "But we see how the situation in Italy is becoming more acute and we have to be prepared to avoid a situation comparable to summer 2015."
Italy has taken in more than 85,000 refugees and migrants so far this year, most of whom arrived by boat from Africa, making it the main point of entry into Europe.
France, Germany and the EU executive pledged more support for Italy on Monday, but made no direct reference to a plea from Rome for other countries to allow migrant-rescue boats to dock in their ports.
Controls at the Brenner Pass would be particularly sensitive as the frontier there separates two regions that feel closely connected - Austria's Tyrol and Italy's South Tyrol. South Tyrol was once part of the wider Austro-Hungarian empire but was annexed by Italy at the end of World War One in 1918. (Reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna, Kirsti Knolle in Frankfurt and Isla Binnie in Rome; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
© Thomson Reuters 2017 All rights reserved