While more and more people seek asylum in Europe, the EU's interior ministers are finding it hard to agree on how to divide responsibility for refugees between the EU member states. Italy has called for more solidarity.
Around 65,000 asylum seekers reached the coast of Italy in the first six months of this year - nearly as many as in the whole of 2013. Italy, which is suffering from economic problems, feels burdened by this influx. The country's conservative interior minister, Angelino Alfano, took advantage of its EU presidency by demanding more solidarity and burden sharing from the other European interior ministers. The conference is taking place in Milan.
Since October 2013, when at least 366 asylum seekers drowned near the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Italian navy has been actively looking out for unseaworthy refugee vessels. The initiative, "Mare Nostrum," has saved a lot of lives, said Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees, an aid organization for asylum seekers. But he added that Italy should receive EU support in the matter.
"This is a European issue," Hein said. "These Mediterranean borders should be seen as European borders, not only as the borders of Italy or Greece."
Saving people at sea costs Italy around 9 million euros per month. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has expressed his sympathy in the matter but cannot offer a solution.
"It cannot be the permanent task of the Italian navy to take in refugees," De Maiziere told DW at the interior ministers' meeting in Milan. "The idea of passing the task on to Frontex [the EU agency for external border security] is unrealistic in my eyes."
Frontex has a team of officials but does not supply its own ships for patrolling the Mediterranean coast.
Seeking asylum beyond Italy
According to Hein, once the refugees have arrived in Italy, the official asylum procedure is conducted with relative fairness. Nearly 80 percent of the refugees, who currently mostly come from Syria and countries on the Horn of Africa, are granted asylum.
But many of them only use Italy as a stepping stone. For example, a lot of Syrians have relatives, friends and acquaintances in other EU countries, mostly Germany and Sweden. "This is why they don't want to apply for asylum in Italy but move on further, and some of them do move on, but there is no legal way of doing it," Hein said.
Angelino Alfano (left), Cecilia Malmström (center) and Thomas de Maiziere (right) used the forum to exchange opinions on the refugee issue
According to the 2003 Dublin Regulation, it is the country that a refugee originally enters that bears the responsibility for their welfare.
"The fact that the Dublin Regulation doesn't work and four or five different EU countries end up with refugees is not a symptom of mutual solidarity," De Maiziere said after consulting with his fellow ministers. "We want to solve this together."
He added that Italy should receive more support for dealing with refugees on entry.
The Italian Council for Refugees has criticized the fact that asylum seekers, once officially registered in Italy, are often left to fend for themselves and do not receive any further support. This is one of the reasons why many of them want to move on to other countries, according to Hein.
"They don't only let themselves be smuggled over to get into Europe, but also to get from southern Europe to northern Europe," said Hein. "This has led to a very chaotic situation."
No EU-wide cooperation
The EU Commission has called on the EU member states to take in more refugees - including those in the UN Refugee Agency's shelters designated for resettlement. So far, 13 of the 28 EU states have taken part in such programs, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström said. De Maiziere indicated that Germany could do more in this area, but added that the main issue is the uneven distribution of responsibility within the EU.
"We also have states that, in relation to the size of their population, take in far too few refugees," said De Maiziere. This includes the central and eastern European states, he added. "A common implementation of the asylum system requires solidarity and responsibility from all parties. Germany is ready for it."
This year, the EU interior ministers are expecting an increase in refugee numbers due to the ongoing civil war in Syria and the unstable situation in Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. Most EU states reject the idea of allocating refugees to different countries based on a strict quota. A system like this would not relieve Italy of its burden either: based on the current number of refugees in proportion to population size, Italy occupies the 15th spot in the EU. The top performers in this area are Sweden, Malta and Austria.
Swedish Migration Minister Tobias Billström has expressed some reservations towards Italy's stance.
"Italy is doing a splendid job saving people's lives in the Mediterranean, but some of the people who reach Italy's coasts end up in countries like Germany or Sweden," said Billström. "Together, Sweden and Germany have taken in two-thirds of all asylum seekers from Syria."
Working together with countries of origin
The EU ministers agreed that cooperation with the refugees' countries of origin and transit countries needed to be improved. They said that the EU should ensure better living conditions for the refugees. Particular attention should be paid to Libya, which, due to its complicated domestic situation, is one of the main transit passages for people smugglers and refugees from North African countries.
"I think the message should be that we're not only frustrated with the distribution of refugees across Europe, but also that we should take more proactive measures in countries with real problems - in a coordinated effort," De Maiziere said.
Hein has heard similar statements over the past few years. He said he hoped Europeans would develop a greater sensitivity towards refugee issues and that Italy, as holder of EU presidency, can "blow a breach in the wall that has been built around Europe."