EU interior ministers vowed on Tuesday to help Malta cope with an incoming tide of illegal migrants but were reluctant to take in those picked up at sea.
The tiny Mediterranean island says it cannot cope and wants the EU’s
27 countries to share out those picked up outside the bloc’s waters,
in particular near Libya, according to the size of each EU state.
"The situation right now is just a complete mess, it’s a free for
all," Maltese Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg told reporters at a
meeting of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg.
"Everyone is leaving from two ports in Libya and each year 600
immigrants are dying — this is a very conservative estimate — on
the threshold of Europe." He said Malta had saved 250 people in the
past 10 to 15 days.
"There is general willingness to accept there are shared
responsibilities," German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said
at the end of the meeting.
Diplomats will discuss if those responsibilities could mean
financial assistance or taking people in. Many doubted there could
be a deal on sharing out migrants intercepted at sea.
"It seems very difficult. I do not see, technically, how we could do
that," the French minister for immigration and national identity,
Brice Hortefeux, told reporters.
"There often are political commitments to help but when the time
comes to concretely do something nobody’s there," an EU diplomat said.
Governments offered more boats and helicopters to Malta but the
diplomat said only 10 percent of the boats and helicopters promised
to the EU’s border agency for its operations had been freed up.
The meeting in Luxembourg followed criticism of Malta for refusing
to accept 27 people who spent three days clinging to fishing nets
while it argued with Libya over who should rescue them. They were
eventually picked up by the Italian navy.
Diplomats said a number of countries fear that a deal on sharing out
those picked up at sea would encourage would-be migrants to make the dangerous trip in search of a job.
"I do not see how we can share out illegal migrants. It would give a
bad signal to say ’you can come, we will save you, we will
distribute you among ourselves", a spokesman for the EU
commissioner for migration, Franco Frattini, said on Monday.
Malta and the European Commission want EU-wide guidelines on who is responsible for saving people at sea and on whose land they should
be allowed to disembark.
The ministers rubber-stamped a deal on Tuesday to set up a pool of
on-call border guards for emergency operations.
The bloc’s border agency, Frontex, said this would not solve the
problem. The pool of nearly 500 guards would be sent only on
emergency operations and would not stay permanently, either around
Malta or Spain’s Canary Islands, it said.
"Frontex is not and will never be the panacea to problems of illegal
migration," Frontex’s director Ilkaa Laitinen said in a letter. He
said its mission was not to conduct search-and-rescue operations but
to protect borders.
Thousands are believed to die each year attempting perilous sea
crossings to Europe.