Lampedusa migrant crisis top concern at EU summit

A recent surge in arrivals on the small Italian island has created a new sense of urgency among EU countries

An Italian law enforcement officer speaks with migrants on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Reuters
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A recent spike in migrant arrivals to the Italian island of Lampedusa has created a new sense of urgency for the 27 members of the EU to finalise years-long discussions on a migration pact.

Home affairs ministers were meeting in Brussels on Thursday to discuss a so-called crisis regulation that gives more flexibility and time to countries to process asylum applications when numbers are exceptionally high.

Concern is high not only over how to distribute the high numbers of arrivals but also their potential weaponisation: a surge in arrivals of mostly Iraqi migrants via Belarus in 2021 was widely viewed as an attempt by Belarusian authorities to destabilise the bloc.

The crisis regulation was part of a number of proposals made in 2020 by the European Commission, the bloc's legislative arm, to address imbalances in the distribution of asylum seekers.

It has only recently started to be discussed within the European Council, a body in which government representatives define key priorities for the union, where it had faced strong opposition from some politicians in Germany.

However, Chancellor Olaf Scholz appeared to overrule objections from within his own cabinet on Thursday by saying Germany "will not stand in the way" of a pact being adopted.

Germany's Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock had criticised the crisis regulation on Sunday, claiming that it would create an incentive for large numbers of refugees to move to Germany.

Negotiations are expected to be difficult and officials said they were unsure whether a deal would be struck this week.

A similar home affairs meeting in June ended in an acrimonious row between member states, with Poland and Hungary refusing the obligation to share the hosting of asylum seekers.

Other countries opposing the crisis regulation reportedly include Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria.

Disagreements threaten to derail further the adoption of the EU's new migration pact which has been under discussion for the past three years. Officials still hope it will be adopted before the next European elections in June.

The EU is on track to receive more than one million asylum seekers this year – the biggest number since 2015 and 2016 when it saw a huge influx of migrants, mainly Syrians fleeing the war in their country.

Top on the agenda of discussions between home affairs ministers is also an agreement signed in July with Tunisia which aims to curb the arrival of migrants by sea.

Earlier this month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Lampedusa in a show of solidarity with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

More than 127,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, according to government data, almost double the figure for the same period last year.

Ms von der Leyen announced a 10-point plan to fight irregular migration, including an acceleration of the implementation of the commission's agreement with Tunisia.

Last week, the commission unlocked a first disbursement of $42 million to Tunisia as part of the agreement, which will in part be used to revamp search and rescue boats.

Updated: September 28, 2023, 1:24 PM