International

EU interior ministers meet as nations tussle over migrant response

Interior ministers from 28 European nations are holding talks Thursday as they face pressure to introduce new policies to stem migrant arrivals, in their first meeting since Austria took the EU helm with promises of a tough response to the issue.

The thorny issue of how to deal with migrants remains a key topic for the six-month presidency of Austria
The thorny issue of how to deal with migrants remains a key topic for the six-month presidency of Austria (AFP)

Interior ministers from 28 European nations are holding talks Thursday as they face pressure to introduce new policies to stem migrant arrivals, in their first meeting since Austria took the EU helm with promises of a tough response to the issue.

The meeting in the Austrian city of Innsbruck will focus on finding a common migration plan, with Vienna expected to push to change current EU policy so it is no longer possible to make asylum requests on European soil.

Although the number of migrants fleeing war and poverty has fallen sharply since a 2015 peak, the thorny issue remains a key topic for the six-month presidency of Austria, where a conservative-far right coalition took power last December.

Austria's far-right Interior Minister Herbert Kickl on Thursday repeated his suggestion of creating "return centres" outside the EU for people refused asylum who cannotbe immediately repatriated to their country of origin.

However, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos voiced scepticism over the practicalities of the idea.

"Does anybody know one country out of Europe, in the periphery of Europe, that is willing to host such a camp? I don't know so far. Let's wait, it's just an idea," he told reporters before the meeting.

Earlier, Kickl held talks with his Italian counterpart Matteo Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party, and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.

The three have formed a controversial "axis of the willing" to push for tougher migration policies.

Salvini has banned charity rescue boats that pick up migrants in the Mediterranean from docking in Italy, accusing them of aiding human traffickers to bring migrants to Europe.

In Innsbruck, he is expected to ask nations not to send ships on international missions to Italian ports.

On Thursday, the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said that more than 600 migrants had drowned in the Mediterranean over the past four weeks, including babies and young children.

'Hard' discussions

Speaking after the meeting with Kickl and Seehofer, Salvini said: "We have taken on the big problem of arrivals: if they go down, we can also solve the smaller internal problems between (our) nations," alluding to the vexed question of migration between EU member states.

Seehofer said he hoped to reach agreements with Italy and Greece by early August over his plans to return migrants to those countries from Germany.

"These are not easy discussions... but it is good that they are taking place," he said Thursday.

Migrant deals between bloc members are central to the compromise German Chancellor Angela Merkel reached with Seehofer to end a row over immigration within their coalition that has threatened to bring down the government.

Salvini has underlined that Italy expects to see more action to toughen the EU's external frontiers before agreeing to any deal to take back migrants.

Austria has already floated several ideas on toughening the EU's borders. Kickl told journalists earlier this week that he would propose asylum requests be made in refugee camps outside Europe to "a sort of mobile commission".

Only exiles from countries that directly border the European Union would be able to make their asylum requests on EU territory.

Kickl told the European Parliament on Monday that the Innsbruck meeting would be the first time that "we will talk more concretely about the issue of disembarkation platforms" outside the bloc for migrants rescued in international waters.

But European nations are divided on the feasibility and legality of these "platforms", which several countries like Morocco and Tunisia have already said they would not host.