EU Story 2017-19
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Italy calls on European countries to
take migrant ships as country struggles with record numbers
by Rory Mulholland, Paris
Italy's interior minister on Sunday called on European countries to open their ports to migrant rescue ships as he met for crisis talks with his French and German counterparts.
Italy has threatened to close its ports to charity ships that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean if other EU states do not agree to take some of the growing number of refugees onto their shores.
"We are under enormous pressure," Marco Minniti said in Paris before the talks, which are taking place ahead of an EU summit in Tallinn this week.
Italian media reports said Rome was likely to call for a European code of conduct to be drawn up for the privately-run aid boats, with the Corriere della Sera saying vessels that did not comply could be "seized".
Over the past week alone, around 10,000 migrants have been ferried to Italy after being rescued from overcrowded, rickety boats travelling from Libya.
More than 2,160 have died trying to reach Europe from Africa so far this year, and Italy has taken in 82,000 migrants in the first six months of 2017, 19 per cent more than in the same period last year.
Critics say these ships have become part of the business model of people smugglers in Libya, who are able to sell places on flimsy vessels by telling migrants that they are likely to be rescued once out at sea.
"There are NGO ships, Sophia and Frontex boats, Italian coast guard vessels" saving migrants in the Mediterranean, Mr Minniti said, referring to the charity boats as well as vessels deployed under EU border security missions.
"If the only ports where refugees are taken to are Italian, something is not working. This is the heart of the question," he told Il Messaggero newspaper.
One rescue organisations, SOS Mediterranee, which runs an aid vessel along with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), said forcing boats carrying migrants to go to other European ports would be logistically difficult.
If the order came, "we would have no choice, we would obey. But it would be completely impossible with more than 1,000 people on board," SOS Mediterranee spokeswoman Mathilde Auvillain told AFP.
"And then we'd need to make a stopover in an Italian port anyway to refuel, or we'd end up needing to be rescued ourselves."
At the height of the migration crisis in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees were arriving in Europe from Turkey via the Balkans route, the EU set up a quota system to try to distribute some migrants to other member states.
But that scheme barely got off the ground. Migrant numbers arriving in Greece from Turkey have slowed to a trickle as a result of a an EU deal with Ankara last year to halt the traffic. But numbers are now surging on the Mediterranean route from Libya, with nearly all of them heading for Italy.
"What is happening in front of our eyes in Italy is an unfolding tragedy," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said at the weekend, as he called on Italy’s neighbours to do more to help.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said that next week he would talk with the Italian and the Greek prime ministers to see what the EU could do “to relieve Italy and Greece in their difficult struggles."
The Commission has signalled readiness to give Italy more cash, but officials and diplomats in Brussels are sceptical there would be any swift agreement for other EU states to take in charity boats loaded with migrants.
Many of the migrants arriving in Italy hope to reach northern Europe, and some turn up on the Italian border with France, where police use drones and dogs to try to prevent them from slipping across the frontier.
Those who do make it across often head for Calais on the northern French coast, from where they try to sneak into Britain on the back of a lorry.
French authorities last October demolished the notorious "Jungle" camp which had been home to up to 10,000 refugees fleeing war or poverty.
But hundreds have now returned to Calais, where riot police were called in over the weekend to break up fighting among more than 100 African migrants armed with sticks and rocks.