EU powers push for uptake of migrant relocation pilot scheme

LUXEMBOURG (AFP) – European Union (EU) powers France, Germany and Italy, along with smaller member Malta, will tomorrow seek to rally the rest of the European bloc to a joint scheme they have come up with to distribute migrants saved at sea.

But it was unclear, ahead of the meeting of EU Interior Ministers in Luxembourg, how many other states would sign on to the so-called Malta declaration reached two weeks earlier.

Migration remains a hot-button issue in the EU in the wake of a massive 2015 influx of mostly Syrian refugees fleeing war.

While the numbers have fallen to just a fraction since – under contentious EU deals done with Turkey and Libya to hinder migrants’ onward travel – no progress has been made in three years of efforts to reform the EU’s refugee policy.

The Malta declaration is an attempt at a stop-gap measure pending efforts by the incoming European Commission taking charge next month to unblock the refugee policy impasse under a vice president specifically tasked with “Protecting the European Way of Life”.

The text urges EU countries to take a share of the asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean, who are arriving mostly in Italy and Malta either in overcrowded boats or rescued by ships run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). However, the document’s language is deliberately vague to avoid raising hackles.

It makes no mention of intake quotas, for instance, or punishment for EU states that do not participate, or how economic migrants with no right to asylum might be weeded out and returned to their country of origin.

The mechanism has just a six-month period lifespan, renewable if there’s sufficient support.

“The beauty of this text is that you can’t be against it. But also you can maybe not be totally in favour of it. Because there are things lacking,” one European diplomat said.

“There’s hardly anything in there that describes the disembarkation, the disembarkation procedure and the relocation scheme afterwards.”

Some EU states grumbled that the Malta declaration does little to address migration flows to Spain or Greece which are largely not subject to sea search-and-rescue.

Since the start of this year, 13 per cent of irregular migrants have arrived in Europe through Italy or Malta, compared to 57 per cent in Greece and 29 per cent in Spain.