Four Mediterranean European Union nations have issued a joint statement on a dispute over a deal for Europe to jointly help asylum-seekers.
In their statement Saturday, Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus repeated their positions that they “cannot subscribe to the notion that countries of first entry are the only possible European landing spots for illegal immigrants.” They added that the number of migrants taken in by other EU member states “only represents a very small fraction of the actual number of irregular arrivals.”
The four countries condemned the operations of private charity vessels “acting in total autonomy from the competent state authorities” to save hundreds of migrants rescued at sea.
Italy’s new far-right-led government was locked in a weekslong standoff with humanitarian groups that rescue migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea. It argued that the countries whose flag the ships fly should take in the migrants, not Italy, a position vehemently opposed by humanitarian groups, legal experts and human rights activists.
After ignoring repeated requests for a safe port, Italy directed three ships with migrants to ports in southern Italy, initially selecting for disembarkation only those deemed vulnerable, including minors and those with medical conditions. Eventually all were allowed to enter Italy. But a fourth ship, the Ocean Viking, remained in international waters and eventually made its way toward France after nearly three weeks at sea, finally docking Friday at the port of Toulon.
The Ocean Viking episode led to a diplomatic flap between Italy and France, after Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, thanked Paris for accepting the migrants before France had agreed to do so.
French Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin then announced France’s withdrawal from a “solidarity” mechanism approved in June to reduce the pressure on front-line countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain by taking in asylum-seekers. French officials also announced new border checks with Italy.
The full joint statement follows:
Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus, as the countries of first entry into Europe, through the Central and Eastern Mediterranean route, are bearing the heaviest burden of the management of migratory flows in the Mediterranean, in full compliance with all international obligations and EU rules.
We have always strongly supported the need to develop a new European policy on migration and asylum, truly inspired by the principles of solidarity and responsibility, that would be equitably shared among all Member States.
On 10th June 2022, we approved a Political Declaration establishing a temporary and voluntary relocation mechanism, despite the fact that the MED 5 countries supported a mandatory relocation scheme. Unfortunately, the number of pledges for relocation made by participating Member States only represents a very small fraction of the actual number of irregular arrivals that we have received so far this year. Moreover, to date the mechanism has been slow on delivering on its stated goal of alleviating the burden that we, as front line Member States, are constantly exposed to, as only a small number of relocations has been implemented so far. This is unfortunate and disappointing, especially at this point in time when our countries are increasingly faced with a migratory pressure that is putting a strain on our asylum and reception system.
Pending agreement on an effective, fair and permanent burden sharing mechanism, we cannot subscribe to the notion that countries of first entry are the only possible European landing spots for illegal immigrants, especially when this happens in an uncoordinated fashion based on the basis of a choice made by private vessels, acting in total autonomy from the competent state authorities.
We reiterate our position that the modus operandi of these private vessels is not in line with the spirit of the international legal framework concerning Search and Rescue Operations, which should be respected. Every State shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control over ships flying its flag.
With full respect to the competences of littoral states in accordance with international law, we consider that a serious discussion on how to better coordinate these operations in the Mediterranean, including by ensuring that all these private vessels respect the relevant international conventions and other applicable rules, and that all Flag States take responsibility in accordance with their international obligations, is urgent and necessary. We ask the European Commission and the Presidency to take the necessary steps to initiate this discussion.