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Reportage. “The southern Libyan border is the southern frontier of Europe,” says the Italian foreign minister, reflecting a growing sentiment here.

Europe pushes to open refugee camps in Chad and Niger

The European Union must address the immigration emergency with the same “firmness” it used to face the debt crisis and at the end of a “collective, serious and responsible” discussion that leaves no room for “impertinent punch lines.”

During the Ambassadors’ Conference held at the Farnesina, the Foreign Ministry headquarters, to solicit the E.U.’s intervention, president Sergio Mattarella did not ever mention Austria and Hungary, but there was a clear reference to the recent comments made by some political leaders of the two countries.

The problem is that beyond Brussels, where it is unlikely Italy will find solutions, the immigration issue is a game that is increasingly being played on the African continent. It is no coincidence that Interior Minister Marco Minniti traveled on Monday to Tunisia, for the second meeting of the Contact Group on the Central Mediterranean route. He stressed that “controlling the southern border of Libya,” where migrants cross today, “means controlling the southern borders of Northern Africa and the whole of Europe.”

Attending the meeting, the second since the Contact Group was created in Rome last March, were the Interior Ministers of eight European countries: Italy, France, Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Switzerland, Malta and Estonia. Also present were their colleagues from Tunisia, Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali and Niger. In addition, the E.U. Commissioner for Immigration Dimitri Avramopoulos attended. Once again, as has been happening for almost two years now, the goal of the summit was to try to extend the E.U.’s borders by convincing African leaders to work together to stop direct migrant flows into Europe.

That’s why the participation of the Chad and Niger ministers is considered particularly important by the Viminale. These two Sahel countries, which share a 5,000-kilometer border with Libya, are the main points of passage of migrant caravans. There, the European Union would like to set up camps managed by IOM and UNHCR to stop migrants by providing them with information and assistance, but especially, to convince them to repatriate voluntarily. For this purpose, on Monday, new funding would be allocated to the two organizations.

Meanwhile, Tuesday afternoon at the Viminale, there was a meeting between Minister Minniti and the NGOs engaged in the Mediterranean Sea. On the table is the new code of conduct that humanitarian organizations, which are responsible for a large number of rescues, will have to stick to in the future. The meeting will only be the start of the debate, but it seems clear that only some NGOs, probably the largest, will agree to sign up for the new rules which, among other things, require the presence of a law enforcement officer on board and the ban on transhipment of rescued migrants to other vessels.

“The risk with this is that a rift will be created between the good NGOs and those that will refuse to sign the new code, thus slowing the rescue operations of migrants,” explained lawyer Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, President of the Rights and Border Association. He is mainly concerned by the fact that in the future, transferring saved migrants on board larger ships might be prevented.

“Transhipment is essential,” he said. “There are smaller boats that can approach the barges more easily, but have a smaller capacity. It should also be taken into account that all the operations are coordinated with the Italian Coast Guard, which may now see its autonomy being questioned by the decision of the Ministry of Interior Affairs.”

It is difficult to understand today what could happen to NGOs that refuse to sign the code. The new rules will only allow rescue operations in Libyan waters in case of an emergency. However, it may happen that once the ship goes into port, the police—which are responsible for carrying out the controls—will challenge the NGO that has executed the rescue on the urgency of the case.

If so, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a new Cap Anamur case will occur. In this 2004 case, a ship from the German NGO of the same name had 37 Sudanese refugees on board, but the Viminale denied them mooring rights at Porto Empedocle for 21 days. At the end, the authorities allowed the migrants to disembark and get assistance, but Commander Stefan Schmidt was accused of favoring illegal immigration and the ship was seized. Five years later, Schmidt was absolved of all charges by the Agrigento court.

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