France, Germany Refuse Italy's Demand to Open Ports to Migrants

Gregory Viscusi

(Bloomberg) -- France and Germany widened the group of countries willing to accept asylum seekers arriving by boat across the Mediterranean, but made no move to accept demands by Italy’s Matteo Salvini that they accept migrant ships directly in their ports.

Salvini, in his capacity as Italian interior minister, said Monday’s meeting of European interior ministers was a “flop” that “basically said Italy must continue to be the refugee camp of Europe,” according to a statement.

France and Germany had organized the informal meeting in Paris to try to improve Europe’s ad-hoc system for dealing with humanitarian aid ships that collect migrants from rickety boats leaving North Africa and attempt to deliver them to Europe.

Salvini has largely shut Italian ports to humanitarian ships, meaning that each approach of a migrant-laden boat has set off negotiations across Europe that eventually result in the boat being allowed to dock in Malta and sometime Italy, but only once other countries, mostly France and Germany, have signed up to accept asylum seekers. Boats have spent weeks at sea while these agreements are hashed out.

French officials said Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal , Lithuania, Croatia and Ireland had committed to accepting asylum seekers. And they pledged financial and technical assistance to facilitate the swift return of migrants not entitled to asylum protection, without providing details.

‘Legal and Practical’

But France has refused to waver from the principle that those saved at sea should be taken to the nearest safe port, which is almost always Italy or Malta for boats leaving North Africa. Nor has it agreed to share the majority of migrants who do not qualify for asylum protection.

“We must respect humanitarian and maritime law, which means that once a boat is in international waters it must find refuge in the nearest safe port,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters after the meeting. “This a legal and practical necessity. The only way to handle this is through cooperation.”

Salvini, who didn’t attend Monday’s meeting, had asked without success for other EU countries to agree to rotate arrival ports throughout Europe for migrant vessels, arguing that maritime laws about nearest safe ports were written for shipwrecks, not migration flows.

Read more: Italy to Push for New European Plan to Control Migration

Salvini has seen his popularity grow in Italy ever since his coalition government with Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement came to power last year because of his success in stemming immigration to Italy, even if the previous government had already greatly reduced flows.

Since the start of this year, 3,353 migrants have arrived by boat in Italy and 1,048 in Malta, according to United Nations figures. That’s a much slower pace than the 24,000 that arrived in Italy for all of 2018 or the 120,000 that came in 2017 and 180,000 in 2016.

The Italian government estimates it spent 4.3 billion euros ($5 billion) aiding migrants in 2017, while receiving only 77 million euros in EU aid.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at gviscusi@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Robert Jameson

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