European states meet to tackle growing migration rifts

Migrants wait to disembark from Aquarius in the Sicilian harbour of Catania, Italy, May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Several European leaders including those of France, Germany, Italy and Austria will hold talks on Sunday on migration, an issue bringing bitter political divisions to a head in Europe and increasingly in the United States.

Sources said the leaders of Greece and Bulgaria would also attend the gathering, which will explore how to stop people from moving around the European Union after claiming asylum in one of the Mediterranean states of arrival.

Sunday’s talks, announced by the executive European Commission, precede a June 28-29 EU summit at which leaders will try to agree a joint migration policy three years after more than a million people poured into Europe, mostly fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Asia.

The development coincides with an international outcry over the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border, as videos emerged of youngsters held in enclosures far from their parents, and an audio of wailing children went viral.

Immigration is increasingly shaping politics in rich countries, and in Germany, the EU’s wealthiest economy, threatens to wreck Chancellor Angela Merkel’s relationship with her CDU’s Bavarian sister party, part of her coalition.

The Christian Social Union (CSU) on Monday gave Merkel two weeks to get a Europe-wide deal.

Horst Seehofer, CSU leader and Germany’s interior minister, wants to turn away migrants who have already registered in other EU states, but Merkel opposes any unilateral move to reverse her 2015 open-door policy and undermine her authority.

“We can no longer look on as this refugee tourism across Europe happens,” Bavaria’s CSU interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

“CREATING PSYCHOSIS”

Pope Francis said in an interview that populists were “creating psychosis” on the issue of immigration, even as aging societies like Europe faced “a great demographic winter” and needed more immigrants. He said that, without immigration, Europe “will become empty”.

But the EU is bitterly divided.

It has struggled to reform its internal asylum rules, which broke down in 2015, and has instead tried to tighten its borders and prevent new arrivals. To that end, it has given aid and money to countries including Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Niger.

U.S. President Donald Trump, defending his own tough anti-immigrant polices, waded into Germany’s debate on Monday with a series of tweets criticizing Merkel’s open-border policy as a “big mistake” that had fueled crime in Europe.

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The increasing tempo of migration diplomacy coincides with the summer peak season for migrants sailing in small boats from north Africa to Europe’s southern shores.

The Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti arrived at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo overnight and 519 migrants on board were being disembarked, relief workers said.

They were saved in seven different rescue operations off the Libyan coast, and some spent days at sea as the new Italian government looks to slow the influx of migrants.

“They are in terrible conditions, not only medical conditions but (also) psychological conditions, and they really need urgent medical care and psychological care,” U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesman Marco Rotunno told Reuters TV.

“We are very worried because, after these people were rescued, along with the people that were rescued in the other events, there was a long delay before people could reach a safe port.”

AFGHANISTAN, SYRIA, IRAQ

The number of people fleeing war or strife for more stable parts of the world declined significantly in 2017, although the United States registered a sharp increase in asylum applications during Trump’s first year in the White House.

In a report on migration trends, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said the leading source of refugees had been Afghanistan, followed by Syria and Iraq – the countries that have headed the list for the past three years.

Meanwhile, Trump, who has made a tough stance on immigration a pillar of his presidency and promises a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, faces outcry over his administration’s policy of separating immigrant parents and children along the frontier.

Asylum applications to OECD countries fell 25 percent in 2017 from the record-high of 1.64 million a year earlier, the report said. Applications to EU member states nearly halved.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis criticized the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border, saying populism was not the answer to the world’s immigration problems.

Speaking to Reuters, the Pope said he supported recent statements by U.S. Catholic bishops, who called the separation of children from their parents “contrary to our Catholic values” and “immoral”.

“It’s not easy, but populism is not the solution,” Francis said on Sunday night.