EU split on migration despite sharp decline in new arrivals

EU summit comes amid warnings that authoritarian and ‘anti-European’ movements will profit from tensions over migrants.
Thursday 28/06/2018
Migrants of a group intercepted aboard dinghies off the coast in the Strait of Gibraltar are seen on a rescue boat after arriving at the port of Barbate, southern Spain, June 27. (Reuters)
Migrants of a group intercepted aboard dinghies off the coast in the Strait of Gibraltar are seen on a rescue boat after arriving at the port of Barbate, southern Spain, June 27. (Reuters)

LONDON – European Union (EU) leaders face deep divisions on migration and the eurozone at a crucial summit in Brussels on Thursday that could decide the fate of embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel and even the bloc itself.

The meeting comes amid warnings that authoritarian and “anti-European” movements will profit from any failure by the 28 leaders to deal with the wave of problems, especially a flare-up of tensions over migrants.

The rise of Italy’s new populist government and bitter rows over who should take in migrants arriving on numerous rescue boats have revived divisions, despite the fact that arrivals have dipped sharply since the 2015 migration crisis.

EU President Donald Tusk warned on the eve of the summit that time is running out for leaders to reassure their citizens that they can control migration before authoritarian politicians win the “high-stakes” debate.

“More and more people are starting to believe that only strong-handed authority, anti-European and anti-liberal in spirit, with a tendency towards overt authoritarianism, is capable of stopping the wave of illegal migration,” Tusk, the summit host, said in a letter to leaders.

“The stakes are very high and time is short,” he warned.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani warned separately in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that failure to act on migration “could deal a fatal blow to the European project”.

One senior EU official dubbed it the “mother of all summits” because of the huge number of key issues that leaders are under pressure to resolve at the two-day meeting on Thursday and Friday.

Merkel, for years Europe’s most powerful leader, now risks seeing her fragile coalition collapse if she cannot reach migrant deals with other countries including Italy’s new government of far-right and anti-establishment parties.

After allowing more than one million asylum seekers into Germany since 2015, Merkel faces an end-of-the-month deadline from her own interior minister to seal pacts that would let Germany turn back asylum seekers already registered in other EU states.

The EU is rapidly moving rightwards on migration, a stance that is likely to increase when Austria under youthful conservative Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz assumes the bloc’s presidency on July 1.

A “mini-summit” of 16 leaders in Brussels on Sunday failed to make much headway.

The leaders hope at the summit to approve work on migrant “disembarkation platforms” in countries outside Europe, most likely in Africa, although EU officials have been vague on what form they would take.

In a bone to Merkel the leaders will also agree to “closely cooperate” on stopping secondary movements of migrants, according to draft summit conclusions, although the language may be weaker than she would have hoped.

But there is no chance of agreement on a plan for mandatory “burden sharing” by moving refugees from frontline Mediterranean states like Italy and Greece to other countries.

The plan is strongly opposed by eastern European countries, particularly the authoritarian governments of Hungary and Poland.

The leaders will on Friday discuss largely French and German proposals, many watered down, to reform the euro in an effort to avert the repeat of the debt crisis and to rebuild confidence in the single currency.

Humanitarian rescuers under investigation

The captain of a German humanitarian ship that spent nearly a week searching for safe harbor before being allowed to bring 234 migrants rescued at sea to Malta on Wednesday declared during the odyssey: “Saving people is not a crime.” Still, once he was on land he was placed under investigation for allegedly breaching maritime regulations.

It is part of a growing trend in Europe and the United States: Private groups responding to images of human suffering and deaths targeted by authorities who are often under political and popular pressure to stem the migration tides.

In announcing that Captain Claus-Peter Reisch would face investigation, Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat placed the blame for the impasse that kept the migrants at sea while European nations haggled over their fate squarely on the captain, who he said went “against international rules and ignored directions.” French President Emmanuel Macron also criticized the captain, saying he “acted against all the rules,” by not turning the migrants over to Libyan authorities after they were found floating in rubber dinghies in Libyan waters.

Humanitarian groups have pushed back. Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International and two other NGOs asked to meet with Macron over his assertion. “Engineered panic and fear-mongering by European politicians over migrations is steering the EU toward very dangerous waters,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Italy’s new, hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has been instrumental in raising the level of confrontation, closing Italian ports to humanitarian groups that he accuses of acting like taxi services for migrant smugglers operating out of lawless Libya. His refusal to grant safe harbor, coupled by that of Malta, forced the French aid ship Aquarius to sail an additional 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) to Spain, which agreed to take in the migrants at its port in Valencia.

Reisch is accused of disobeying orders to turn over the migrants, who were rescued in Libyan waters, to the Libyan Coast Guard. Muscat also said the Lifeline turned off its transponder to hide the ship’s location. He cited Dutch authorities as saying the ship’s registration document is merely a proof of purchase and that it is listed as a pleasure craft, which precludes it from participating in rescues.

Lifeline said it obeyed all maritime instructions as long as they were “in compliance with international law.”

“It is important to underline that the only order the ship denied was to hand over people to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, as this would have been not in line with the Geneva Refugee Convention and therefore criminal,” said Alex Steier, the co-founder of the German aid group Mission Lifeline that operates the ship.

On the Lifeline’s approach to Malta on Wednesday, migrants crowded the deck wearing orange life vests, many waving, as it entered the main port in Valletta under escort by a Maltese patrol boat. The ship’s captain sounded the boat’s horn with two long blasts to salute the migrants after their shared journey, and raised a yellow flag to signal permission to authorities to board and a Maltese flag as a courtesy for allowing the ship to dock.

One by one, the migrants were escorted off by officials and medical personnel in white coveralls and gloves. A girl in pink shorts — one of five children on the ship — was cradled by an official. One man walked unsteadily, leaning on a helper, while another wearing shorts and a white polo shirt was barefoot and wrapped in a red blanket.

Ship’s captain Reisch was the last to get off the ship, and he hugged the crew before getting into a waiting police car for questioning.

Once settled, the migrants will be vetted to determine if they are eligible for political asylum or if they are economic migrants that will be sent back to their countries of origin, Muscat said.

Malta opened its port only after seven other countries also agreed to take in those deemed eligible for refugee status. Besides Malta, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Ireland, the Netherlands and Belgium agreed to take in refugees. It was unclear how many each would take.

Muscat said Malta had no legal obligation to act since the rescue happened in Libyan waters, but it was willing to offer its port “before the situation escalates to a humanitarian crisis.”

Salvini, who visited Libya earlier this week, warned Wednesday that there are 662,000 migrants from 40 countries in the northern African nation waiting to make their way to safer countries, mostly in Europe. He cited data from the International Organization for Migration.

The U.N. refugee agency said that this year alone, 1,000 people are missing and presumed dead crossing the Mediterranean Sea, usually in inadequate rubber dinghies organized by smugglers. Despite the travails of Lifeline and Aquarius, humanitarian groups operating ships off Libya, determined to help diminish the number of dead, are not deterred.

As the Lifeline entered Valletta’s harbor it passed the crew of another humanitarian ship, the Astral, which was in Malta preparing to enter search and rescue waters to observe rescues by the aid group Proactiva Open Arms in order to avoid just such controversies.

UN: 10,000 children killed, maimed in conflicts worldwide

More than 10,000 children were killed or maimed amid armed conflicts worldwide last year, while others were raped, forced to serve as soldiers or caught in attacks on schools and hospitals, a United Nations report said Wednesday.

A total of more than 21,000 violations of children’s rights were reported in 2017 — a sharp increase from the previous year, according to the annual “Children and Armed Conflict” report.

The total was a dramatic increase from 15,500 such cases counted in 2016. “The secretary-general is outraged at this number, a significant increase compared to previous years,” said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. 

France charges 10 ultra-right suspects over plot to attack Muslims

The developments come amid an apparent rise in racism and xenophobia in Europe. 

French authorities have charged 10 suspected far-right extremists in connection with an alleged plot to attack Muslims, a judicial source said Thursday.

The nine men and one woman aged 32 to 69 were arrested in raids across France on Saturday.

They appeared before a judge on Wednesday evening and were charged with “criminal terrorist conspiracy”, the source said.

Several were also charged with violations of firearms laws and the manufacture or possession of explosive devices.

Police have linked the ten to a little-known group called Action des Forces Operationnelles (Operational Forces Action), which urges French people to combat Muslims, or what it calls “the enemy within”.

The suspects had an “ill-defined plan to commit a violent act targeting people of the Muslim faith”, a source close to the investigation told AFP on Monday.

Rifles, handguns and homemade grenades were found during the raids in the Paris area, the Mediterranean island of Corsica and the western Charentes-Maritimes region.

Prosecutors said in a statement Wednesday that 36 firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition were seized, as well as items in one suspect’s home that could be used in the manufacture of TATP explosives.

The suspects include a retired police officer, identified only as Guy S., who was the alleged leader of the group, according to a source close to the investigation. The group also includes a former soldier.

France remains on high alert following a wave of jihadist attacks which have killed more than 240 people since 2015.

Officials have urged people not to confuse the actions of radicalised individuals with those of France’s estimated six million Muslims — but anti-Islamic violence is on the rise.

The “Guerre de France” (War for France) website of the shadowy Operational Forces Action depicts an apocalyptic battle scene under the Eiffel Tower, and claims to prepare “French citizen-soldiers for combat on national territory”.

France registered 72 violent anti-Muslim acts last year, up from 67 in 2016.

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)