EU ministers agree interim landmark migrant relocation system

Ministers have met in Malta to thrash out a new automatic system

Men look at the rough seas from aboard the Ocean Viking in the Mediterranean Sea, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. The humanitarian ship carrying 182 people in international waters is sailing back and forth between Italy and Malta as it waits for European governments to allow it in. (AP Photo/Renata Brito)

After years of division within the EU, ministers on Monday agreed on a landmark new automatic system for rescued migrants.

The temporary system will automatically distribute migrants crossing the Mediterranean and is now set to be discussed by the full EU next month.

It comes after interior ministers from Germany, France, Italy and Malta met to discuss the creation of a system to determine which countries will welcome migrants who have been rescued in the central Mediterranean.

"There is an agreement of common paper that will be presented to the Councils of Ministers of home affairs on October 8," Malta's Interior Minister Michael Farrugia said on Monday after talks with his French, German and Italian counterparts.

The ministers had met in a bid to end the long, drawn-out negotiations that have resulted in vulnerable asylum seekers, including babies, being stranded at sea, sometimes for weeks.

Current EU rules say refugees and other asylum-seekers must stay in the country where they arrive while their cases are processed, but most migrants hope to reach northern Europe to find jobs or rejoin family members who have successfully emigrated there.

The discussions took place as the latest humanitarian ship, Ocean Viking, sailed toward Sicily with 182 rescued migrants aboard who had been saved from smugglers' flimsy boats in the central Mediterranean.

The negotiations, in Malta, took place ahead of a European summit in October in Luxembourg.

The automatic distribution system is a temporary solution until the current system, the "Dublin regulation", can be revised.

Its critics have long argued that it places an unfair burden on the Mediterranean frontier countries Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain.

On Monday, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said the aim was to achieve an "emergency mechanism" for the next few months until the incoming European Commission can start work on a permanent arrangement.

Ahead of the agreement being confirmed, he had said thorny questions included which ports can be used, how to distribute the migrants in Europe and how to fight human traffickers.

"For me the most important thing is that we finally find a solution for the year-long European debate about the right to asylum. The first step would be an agreement on rescue at sea," he said earlier, describing himself as "cautiously optimistic."

The EU commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said the talks could chart a way forward.

"Our (top) priority is to save lives," and the second is to crack down on smugglers' networks, he said.

It comes as Italy's new, pro-EU government has moved quickly to turn the page on the anti-migrant policies pursued by former far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, who closed the ports to those rescued.

After a meeting last week, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and French President Emmanuel Macron called for a reform of Europe's "ineffective" policy.

Countries that did not volunteer to take migrants should face financial penalties, they argued.

An informal meeting of foreign and interior ministers in Paris in June saw 15 countries agree to the creation of a "European Solidarity Mechanism".

Croatia, Finland, France, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Portugal said they would "actively" take part.

But Hungary's nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, rejected redistribution quotas during a visit to Rome on Saturday.

Monday's meeting in Malta was expected to decide where those rescued can be relocated and whether that covers just those fleeing war and persecution, or economic migrants too.

France and Germany are reportedly willing to receive 25 per cent of people rescued from vessels in the Mediterranean.

But they are not keen on Italy's idea for migrants to be sent to countries across southern Europe on a rotation basis.

Italy could take 10 per cent of new arrivals — a lower proportion because it has already hosted tens of thousands of new arrivals.

The number of migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean has dropped sharply in recent years.

The UN's refugee body recorded nearly 115,000 arrivals in 2018, down from 170,000 in 2017 and over one million in 2015.