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Hundreds rescued in the Strait of Gibraltar as EU migration debate intensifies

Migrants, part of a group intercepted aboard dinghies off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, are seen on a rescue boat upon arrival at the port of Malaga, Spain June 23, 2018. Picture taken June 23, 2018. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Spanish authorities rescued nearly 400 people in the Strait of Gibraltar yesterday, as the debate over Europe’s response to migration intensified.

Spain’s Salvamento Marítimo and Guardia Civil deployed vessels and helicopters to search for 17 small boats in which migrants were risking their lives to cross the strait.

Over the weekend, nearly 1,000 people were picked up at sea in this area, with Spanish authorities concerned that reception facilities are unable to cope.

On Sunday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said his government was committed to a joint European response to illegal migration.

Mr Sanchez pushed migration up the agenda shortly after he took office earlier this month by accepting the Aquarius, a Gibraltar-flagged NGO boat carrying 629 migrants that was blocked from docking in Italy and Malta, sparking an international crisis over how the EU deals with illegal immigration.

“There cannot be a unilateral response. With the Aquarius we made a gesture of solidarity but a humanitarian crisis is one thing and migration policy another. And that migration policy must have a joint, European response,” Mr Sanchez told El Pais.

The current crisis over migration policy can be traced, in part, back to a lack of European “solidarity” with countries such as Italy that have borne the brunt of illegal immigration, Mr Sanchez said.

He was speaking ahead of a meeting in Brussels later this week at which EU leaders will discuss migration policy.

Yesterday, Italy called for migrant centres to be set up in Africa to stop a tide of asylum-seekers fleeing toward western Europe, as Rome raised pressure on its European Union partners to take a much tougher approach to immigration.

The new Italian government has closed its ports to charity ships operating in the Mediterranean, saying the EU must share the burden of disembarking the hundreds of migrants who are plucked from waters each month, mostly off the Libyan coast.

Italy, which lies close to Libya, has taken in 650,000 boat migrants since 2014.

Its tough new approach has aggravated EU tensions over immigration policy, undermined Europe's Schengen free-travel area and created concerns among EU investors.

"Reception and identification centres should be set up (in or to) the south of Libya," Italy's anti-immigration interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said on a visit to Libya yesterday.

Speaking to reporters after meeting his Libyan counterpart, Abdulsalam Ashour, and the country's deputy prime minister, Mr Salvini thanked Libya's coastguard for its "excellent work" in rescuing and intercepting migrants.

In a statement, he added that the EU should fund efforts in Africa to stop uncontrolled migration to Europe.

The Tripoli-based government, which does not control the whole of Libya, was unwilling to host reception centres. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeg said that while his government was ready to tackle migration, "we completely reject any migrant camps in Libya".

Pic by REUTERS Jon Nazca

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