Swiss ready to help Italy with migrant influx

This boat intercepted by the Italian Navy on June 30 was carrying nearly 600 people - including the dead bodies of some 30 would-be migrants found in the hold. Keystone

Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga says Switzerland is ready to help Italy in coping with the influx of migrants to its shores. So far this year, more than 63,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). 

This content was published on July 9, 2014 - 11:54 and agencies

Sommaruga was in Milan on Tuesday for a meeting of European Union interior ministers to discuss migration issues. On the sidelines she held bilateral talks with Italian Interior Minister Angelo Alfano and said Switzerland was prepared to support Italy in the welcoming and registering of refugees.

During Tuesday’s meeting of interior ministers she called for greater solidarity from other European states and said it was not normal that five countries – Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden – handled three-quarters of all asylum requests in Europe.

“Switzerland is open to discussions on how the Dublin system evolves with the objective of a balanced sharing of responsibilities,” she said.

She added that the fact that all the refugees arriving cannot be properly registered was problematic and a risk for security across Europe, as people are entering Europe’s so-called Schengen space without their identities being checked.

Cooperation with other countries such as Libya was a priority for Switzerland, Sommaruga said.

“We cannot tolerate criminals taking advantage of human distress and playing with the lives of migrants,” she declared.

Record numbers

So far this year, more than 63,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea, according to UNHCR, surpassing the previous record of around 62,000 set in the whole of 2011, the year of the "Arab Spring" uprisings.

Italy - along with Spain, Greece and Malta - have been left mostly on their own to manage the growing number of migrants who seek to enter the EU in boats departing from North Africa, partly because increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in countries like Britain and France makes it unpopular to help out.

Most of the migrants who reached Italy by sea last year were refugees fleeing Syria's civil war and Eritrea's harsh military service, and the trend has continued this year, according to the UNHCR.

But more than 500 have died in 2014 trying to make the perilous sea crossing, including 12 on Sunday when their boat capsized off the coast of the Libyan Tripoli, the UNHCR said on Tuesday.

Switzerland has agreed to take on 500 particularly endangered Syrian refugees in connection with a pilot project announced in September 2013. Since last autumn some 3,000 other Syrians have also travelled to Switzerland to seek asylum or stay with relatives. In 2013 some 2,500 Eritreans sought asylum in Switzerland.

Frontex role

On Tuesday Alfano repeated a call for Europe's border control agency Frontex – to which Switzerland contributes -  to take over Italy's mission patrolling the waters between Africa and Sicily, known as Mare Nostrum or "Our Sea".

The operation was launched last October, when 366 people drowned after their boat capsized just a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa. Mare Nostrum has saved 73,600 people in eight months, or 270 a day.

After the meeting in Milan, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said that she was discussing with Alfano what was needed for a "scaled-down" version of Mare Nostrum.

But she warned that Frontex alone would not be enough and that member states would have to contribute directly, and there was as yet no time frame for a possible EU substitution of Italy.

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