Italy receives hundreds of migrants from German rescue ship

A rescue ship carrying 440 migrants has been allowed to disembark in Sicily, its operator said Friday, capping a year that saw more than 67,000 arrive on Italy's shores.

Migrants wait for assistances by Italian authorities in the port of Pozzallo, southern Sicily.
Migrants wait for assistances by Italian authorities in the port of Pozzallo, southern Sicily. Photo by Giovanni ISOLINO / AFP

“The Italian authorities have assigned the port of Pozzallo, Sicily as place of disembarkation for the Sea-Watch 3 (ship),” the German non-governmental organisation that runs it, Sea Watch, announced on Twitter.

“One week after our first rescue operation, the 440 rescued people on board will finally be allowed to go ashore.”

The rescue ship has been patrolling the sea off the Libyan coast since November 2017, one of several operated by non-profit groups to help often overcrowded and leaky vessels transporting migrants across the central Mediterranean into Europe.

Earlier this week, more than 500 migrants began disembarking in Sicily from the Geo Barents ship operated by Doctors Without Borders, after nearly two weeks at sea.

In total, 67,040 migrants have disembarked in Italy this year, according to interior ministry figures updated at 0700 GMT on December 31st.

This is a sharp increase on the 34,154 recorded last year, but well below the record set in 2016 of 181,436.

Across the wider region, the UN refugee agency estimates that 114,584 migrants have arrived by sea this year to Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, in figures last updated on December 26.

The number of sea arrivals is greater than last year, with 95,031 recorded, but still far short of the over one million people who arrived by sea in 2015.

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Germany says EU border protection is ‘legitimate’

Germany's interior minister said Sunday it was "legitimate" to protect borders, after several EU states asked Brussels to pay for barriers to prevent illegal migrants from entering the bloc.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer says protecting frontier borders is justifiable. Ina Fassbender / POOL / AFP

The call came earlier this month, as Poland proposed building a 350 million-euro wall on its border with Belarus to keep migrants out.

The EU accuses the Belarusian authorities of flying migrants from the Middle East and Africa to Minsk and then sending them into the bloc on foot in retaliation for sanctions imposed over a crackdown on the opposition.

Police on Sunday broke up around 50 activists from the radical far-right group “The Third Way” (Der III. Weg), which had called for its members to gather to take action against migrants seeking to cross the border from Poland into Germany.

During the operation, police seized pepper spray, a bayonet, a machete and batons.     

Asked whether Poland’s border wall was necessary, Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said protecting frontiers was justifiable.

“It is legitimate for us to protect the external border in such a way that undetected border crossings are prevented,” he told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday.

The surge in people crossing illegally over the EU’s eastern frontier with Belarus has placed major strains on member states unaccustomed to dealing with large-scale arrivals.

Seehofer also said Germany would increase controls on the German-Polish border and that 800 police had already been deployed.

“If necessary, I am ready to reinforce this even more,” he said.

According to figures from the German interior ministry, around 5,700 people have travelled over the border between Germany and Poland without an entry permit since the start of the year.

On Saturday, a suspected smuggler was taken into custody after 31 illegal migrants from Iraq were found in a van near the Polish border.

Seehofer wrote to his Polish counterpart Mariusz Kaminski last week to propose increasing joint patrols along the border with Poland in response to rising numbers of migrants.

Kaminski responded that Poland would offer its “full support” for such measures.

However, Seehofer also said last week Germany had no plans to close the border with Poland, adding that such a move would also be “legally questionable”.

READ ALSO: How Germany is proposing to tighten controls on the Polish border

Earlier this month, officials from countries including Poland, Lithuania and Greece argued for barriers along EU borders to counter efforts to weaponise migration.

Brussels has so far shied away from funding border walls for members states, insisting that the current legal framework only allows it to use EU budget funds for “border management systems”.