European ministers met in Paris on Monday, July 22nd, to find unity on how to deal with migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, after Italy and Malta amplified their efforts to block people coming to their ports.
Many of those, who are trying to cross the sea to enter Europe get sent back unwillingly to Libya or become pawns in political standoffs across European Union member states.
One figure, which was noticeably absent from the closed-door meeting of European Union interior and foreign ministers, was Italy's populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who had published a tweet the previous day to voice his strong disagreement with letting France and Germany determine the bloc's refugee policy while nations like Italy are on the front line.
"We intend to make ourselves respected," Salvini declared in another tweet.
Despite Salvini's absence, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas voiced hope that a solution was on the horizon.
"The haggling about emergency rescue in the Mediterranean must finally end," Maas told reporters at a briefing. "It is really necessary that we manage to put together a coalition of those who are prepared to help, and I think we came a step closer to that today."
He said talks would continue among interior ministers about how an ad hoc mechanism might look that would make it possible for Italy and Malta to open their ports.
Two weeks prior, UN migration and refugee agencies urged in a joint statement that the international approach to refugees and migrants in Libya must change, saying that thousands of refugees and migrants held in centres across Libya had to be “freed in an orderly manner” with their protection guaranteed, or evacuated to other countries. From there, the statement continued, accelerated resettlement would be needed.
Thousands of migrants set off each year in smuggler's boats from Libya. According to AP, the International Organization for Migration said that up to June 19th, there were 2,252 arrivals in Italy and 1,151 in Malta on the central Mediterranean route while at least 343 other people died trying. These numbers all fall far below reports on arrivals from previous years.
In what seemed to be a response to Italy’s recent handling of the situation, the UN agencies’ statement further urged the return of European Union countries' search and rescue vessels into the Mediterranean and said, “NGO boats have played a similarly crucial role on the Mediterranean and must not be penalised for saving lives at sea.”
Italy’s Interior Ministry under Minister Matteo Salvini established an explicit ban for ships to not let rescued migrants and refugees disembark on their land, which led to stand-offs between Italian authorities and humanitarian groups trying to bring rescued passengers to safety.
France has stressed the need for European countries to share the arriving migrants, who are often travelling on traffickers' flimsy boats and end up needing rescue from said humanitarian groups to save them from the open water.
The meeting, called by French President Emmanuel Macron, preceded talks later on Monday between Macron and the UN chiefs for refugees and migration.