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Austria, Italy propose processing refugees on ships

September 15, 2018

Italy and Austria have put forth a plan to process refugees on ships, with Austria's interior minister saying asylum-seekers would be "well looked after." Both governments support curbing immigration in their countries.

A boat with over 900 asylum-seekers in Italian waters
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Scardino

The interior ministers of Austria and Italy backed a proposal that would hold rescued refugees aboard ships in the Mediterranean Sea until their asylum claims were processed. The suggestion was unveiled Friday in Vienna, during a conference on migration between the EU and several African countries, including Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Morocco, Niger, Mali and Tunisia.

"For those who manage to make it into a European state's territorial waters and are then picked up by a ship, we should use the ships to carry out the appropriate checks on whether they deserve protection," Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl said in a joint press conference with his counterpart, Matteo Salvini.

"You are well looked after on a ship," Kickl said. He added that the asylum case processing "should last a few days" and that those with no chance of asylum should be denied entry to Europe.

Herbert Kickl and Matteo Salvini in Vienna
Kickl and Salvini said asylum-seekers could have their applications processed before setting foot in EuropeImage: picture-alliance/APA/H. PUNZ

Since migrant routes from Turkey to Greece were largely shut in 2016, asylum-seekers have been following the Mediterranean route to Italy. The new Italian government has made shutting down the route a policy priority.

Austria, which took in more than 1 percent of its population in asylum-seekers in 2015, is currently led by a conservative government that promised to prevent another such influx and has sought to restrict border crossings from Italy.

The Austrian and Italian proposal represented an alternative to the "regional disembarkation platforms," located in EU Mediterranean ports, which had been discussed by European nations.

Read more: Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini strive to forge new European anti-migrant alliance

African countries object

Salvini, who has been fervently opposed to refugee rescue ships landing in Italy, said he was "absolutely in favor" of the proposal to hold migrants at sea.

"In fact, I was saying how ironic it was that having held a group of immigrants on a ship in an Italian port for 10 days, an Italian judge placed me under investigation for kidnapping," Salvini said. 

The Italian interior minister was referring to the formal investigation against him for "illegal confinement" after he refused to let more than 100 rescued migrants disembark on Italian soil.

Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska and EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters that the concept of landing platforms was not supported by any of the African participants.

"It's very hard for a country to accept something like that. Every country has its dignity, and we should recognize that," said Grande-Marlaska.

Read more: At Spain's enclave of Ceuta, African refugees dream of Europe

A heated debate in Vienna

At the conference, Salvini spoke frankly about his country's view of African migrants and Europe's aging demographic trends.

"I am in government, paid by my fellow citizens, in order to encourage our own young people to have children... and not to uproot the best of Africa's young people," Salvini said in a closed-door meeting of EU interior ministers in Vienna, which he posted on his Facebook page to display a spat with the foreign minister of Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn.

Read more: 'Germany is below average in tackling population decline'

"In Italy, we feel it's necessary to help our children make more children. And not to have new slaves to replace the children we're no longer having," Salvini said.

Asselborn was visibly upset and interjected, to which Salvini retorted, "if you in Luxembourg need more immigration, I prefer to keep Italy for Italians and that we start having children again."

But Asselborn did not back down: "In Luxembourg, sir, we have dozens of thousands of Italians! They came as migrants, they worked in Luxembourg so you in Italy would have money for your children."

The caustic exchange reflected the deep fissures between European nations on migrant policy and exposed the challenges the EU faces in reaching a compromise on the matter.

jcg/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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