Fourteen-member countries of the European Union agreed to a new “solidarity mechanism” proposed by Germany and France to allocate migrants and refugees across the bloc, French President Emmanuel Macron said.
The announcement came after foreign affairs and interior ministers of the EU gathered in the French capital, Paris, on Monday to discuss immigration and security issues following a first gathering in Finland last week.
“The conclusion of this morning’s meeting is that, in principle, 14-member states, at this stage, have expressed their agreement with the Franco-German document,” Macron told reporters.
Macron, who called for the meeting, did not spell out specifics but said the new initiative would be “quick” and “automatic”.
Disagreements on how to share out rescuees led the EU to end its Mediterranean Sea patrols earlier this year, with Italy’s rejection of the arrangement whereby those rescued at sea were predominantly taken to Italian ports a critical factor in the move.
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, whose country is at the forefront of the migrant and refugee influx in Europe, did not take part in Monday’s meeting.
In a letter to his French counterpart Christophe Castaner, Salvini warned of the effect of decisions “solely taken in Paris and Berlin”.
Alongside Greece and Spain, Italy is one of the main EU landing points for migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe by boat via the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East.
The country took in almost all of the refugees and migrants rescued by humanitarian groups at sea until a populist coalition government took office in 2018 and immediately sought to close the nation’s ports to the charity ships.
Salvini’s rejection of the arrangement whereby those rescued at sea were taken to Italian ports was a crucial factor in the EU’s Operation Sophia ending its naval patrols in the Mediterranean in March. Since its launch in 2015, the mission has rescued tens of thousands of people.
Nearly 700 deaths have been recorded in the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, almost half as many as the 1,425 registered in 2018.
Macron also said on Monday that France had asked the Libyan government to ensure migrants and refugees would no longer be placed in custody in the country and that appropriate measures would be taken to ensure their safety.
Libya is one of the main departure points for migrants and refugees fleeing poverty and war in the Middle East and Africa and attempting to reach Europe.
The sprawling North African country is currently rocked by conflict with renegade commander Khalifa Haftar‘s Libya National Army (LNA) attempting to wrestle control of the capital, Tripoli, from Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
An estimated 6,000 refugees and migrants are held in detention centres across Libya, while some 50,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers reside elsewhere within the country, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
The UN has repeatedly cautioned the country is not a safe place for migrants and refugees to be held and called for those in detention centres to be released. Despite those warnings, the EU has continued with its policy of backing the Libyan coastguard, which attempts to intercept and forcibly return people caught while trying to cross to Europe from the country.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Sunday slammed the EU’s approach, saying the “suffering” of migrants and refugees in Libya and “deaths” of others in the Mediterranean were “preventable”.
“Politicians would have you believe that the deaths of hundreds of people at sea, and the suffering of thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya, are the acceptable price of attempts to control migration,” said Sam Turner, MSF’s head of mission for search and rescue and Libya.
“The cold reality is that while they herald the end of the so-called European migration crisis, they are knowingly turning a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis these policies perpetuate in Libya and at sea,” he added.