Italy dismisses plan to pay EU countries to host migrants as 'charity handout

Italy’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini dismissed the European Union’s latest migration plan as a “charity handout”, after Brussels proposed €6,000 (£5,346) payments to member states for every migrant hosted at a secure centre on their soil.

The European commission said member states would be entitled to the payment for every migrant rescued in the Mediterranean and taken to a “controlled centre” in an EU member state to process their asylum claims.

Brussels hopes the payments will ease the pressure on Italy, by encouraging other states to take in migrants. But Salvini said it was not enough. “We aren’t asking for charity handouts. Every asylum seeker costs the Italian taxpayer between €40,000 and €50,000. Brussels, they can keep their charity for themselves,” he said. “We don’t want money. We want dignity.”

Although numbers taking the life-threatening voyage across the Mediterranean have fallen sharply, the issue has become a political crisis, after Salvin refused to allow boats carrying migrants to dock at Italian ports. Softening this line on Monday, the Italian government said it would allow boats to dock for five weeks while the EU works out a new asylum policy.

EU leaders – including Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte – agreed to create secure centres for processing asylum claims of Mediterranean migrants at an all-night summit last month. But the plans were immediately thrown into doubt when Austria, France, Germany and Italy indicated they had no intention of hosting such centres.

Although no country has offered to set up a “controlled centre”, on Tuesday the EU’s executive arm attempted to flesh out the details while pledging “full operational support” – teams of EU border guards, asylum officers, translators and officials to return failed asylum seekers to their country of origin.

For a boatload of 500 people, the commission estimates providing 150 staff from the European Border and Coastguard Agency plus 145 from the European Asylum Support Office, two agencies set to grow in power as part of the EU response to migration. The EU police agency, Europol, would provide up to 20 officers per boat to carry out security checks. Member states would be expected to provide doctors, nurses and other medical staff.

All costs would be covered by the EU budget, including the €6,000 payment per person. The proposals are the latest attempt by the commission to spread the cost of migration, which falls heavily on Mediterranean states and countries that have taken in large numbers of refugees.

Hanne Beirens, an associate director at the Migration Policy Institute, argued that one weakness of the plan was its voluntary basis, as no country is compelled to act. “The question of solidarity is a big question mark and it is not clear how this will be resolved.”

The commission hopes to convince member states, partly, by stressing the temporary nature of the centres. Claims would be processed in four to eight weeks, much faster than usual. German authorities, for example, require nearly eight months per claim. “If you want to sell a concept to member states, you don’t want to propose a warehouse; that’s a big concern,” Beirens said. But she said it remained to be seen whether the process could be sped up, especially when officials will be dealing with people from several different countries, possibly without documents.

The commission also restated the EU’s intention to set up migrant processing centres in non-EU countries to assess asylum claims of people rescued at sea. That plan is also in question, after Tunisia and then Libya flatly refused to get involved.

The EU said it was ready to provide “financial and logistical support” to host countries without spelling out details.

Senior commission officials said they never intended setting up such centres in Libya, where thousands of people are being held in detention camps in appalling conditions. Instead, the commission hopes to work with Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, although hopes of getting these countries to sign up are low.

Anxious to avoid making it easier for migrants to reach Europe, the commission proposes setting up the centres “as far away as possible” from disembarkation points to avoid a “pull factor”.

The EU hopes to set up the centres with the UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration. Both agencies insist the centres cannot be closed detention camps if they are involved.

The numbers of people making dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean has sharply fallen since record numbers arrived in Europe in 2015-16. So far this year, 17,838 people have crossed the central Mediterranean Sea to Italy, compared with 119,369 who arrived in 2017 and 181,436 the year before, according to the IOM.

But migration remains a big electoral issue: it has been blamed for bringing Italy’s far-right League party into a coalition government, while the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had to hold crisis talks to preserve her coalition with Bavaria’s centre-right party.

The latest ideas will be discussed by EU ambassadors on Wednesday, but it remains unclear whether member states will back the commission’s vision.

• The picture caption was amended on 25 July 2018 to give the year that it was taken, 2016. Moas suspended search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean in August 2017.

Source: theguardian