Europe looks south to stem migrant flows

Brussels wants to “build strong partnerships” with its partners in Africa to fight migrant smuggling, the EU’s home affairs commissioner said.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels Monday after a videoconference with interior ministers from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, Ylva Johansson said that “further and sophisticated coordination” is required to “develop how we can help them managing migration, how we can fight the root causes of migration, how we can help to protect the human rights of migrants.”

She announced she would travel to these countries for additional talks as soon as the coronavirus situation allows it.

The videoconference was organized by Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese amid an increase in new arrivals on Italy’s shores. Interior ministers from Germany, France, Spain and Malta, as well as the European Commissioner for Neighborhood Olivér Várhelyi, also participated in the call.

“These routes are deadly. We’ve lost thousands of lives through these routes, while smugglers are earning money,” said Johansson, who is responsible for EU home affairs and migration. She added: “To shut down and to fight the criminal networks and the smuggling routes is really a core issue for my upcoming [legislative proposal] on migration and asylum.”

Southern European countries, often the first port of arrival, want an automatic system for the relocation of migrants elsewhere in the bloc.

The efforts to reach agreements with countries of origin or transit for migrants come as the EU continues to struggle with how to deal with asylum seekers arriving in the bloc.

The Commission is planning to present a legislative package on migration in the fall —  but it has very little room for maneuver to bridge diverging views on how to handle migration in the EU.

The stumbling block hasn’t changed since 2015: Southern European countries, often the first port of arrival, want an automatic system for the relocation of migrants elsewhere in the bloc — anathema for Central and Eastern Europeans, who said in a recent letter to Brussels signed by the interior ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia: “We must reiterate our strong objection to mandatory relocation of asylum seekers and migrants in any shape or form.”

Meanwhile, warm weather is bringing many new migrants to Italy’s shores, and with them, new political battlefields.

Arrivals in Italy through the central Mediterranean migration route have increased by more than 60 percent to date this year, compared with the same period in 2019, according to data from the interior ministry. Since July 6, over 1,600 people have landed on the country’s shores — putting its already overstretched reception system under more strain.

The coronavirus epidemic has complicated things further: About 80 recently arrived migrants have tested positive for the virus. The Italian government — which in May had moored a ship off the coast of Sicily to quarantine new arrivals — is now searching for places to isolate them, requisitioning military barracks and more ships, local press reported.

Any mistake by the government in Rome in the management of these flows would play in the hands of opposition politicians like Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party, who suffered from a loss of popularity during the first months of the pandemic and is keen to reroute the political discourse onto anti-migrant narratives.

“This government is a danger for Italy and Italians. Fullstop,” he tweeted along with the hashtag #portichiusi (closed harbors), a slogan he coined while in government in 2018.

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