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EU urges solidarity to deal with boat people

BRUSSELS – EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot urged European nations Monday to help partners like Malta and Italy confront a wave of illegal immigration, after scores of boat people arrived in Sicily.

"Certain (EU) states not so exposed to these migrations must be able to help share part of the burden a little by accepting migrants who have obtained refugee status," he told reporters in Brussels.

"It’s a difficult task given the current crisis. It’s not easy to convince governments to accept to share, but we must get there in the end," Barrot said.

Italy agreed Sunday to take in 140 migrants rescued off its island of Lampedusa by a Turkish freighter last week after a spat with fellow EU member Malta over their fate.

The Italian foreign ministry said the decision was taken "for humanitarian reasons," and "does not constitute a precedent in recognising Malta’s reasons" for not taking the immigrants in.

While Malta recognised the Turkish ship had picked up the migrants in its area of rescue, it argued that international laws stipulated they be taken to the closest port – which was Lampedusa.

Both countries are grappling with a sharp spike in unauthorised immigration from outside the European Union, with 36,900 arriving in Italy last year – a 75 percent increase from 2007 – and a record 2,775 landing in Malta.

Barrot refused to take sides in the dispute.

"International maritime law says that people at risk of drowning must be taken to the nearest port where the conditions for their arrival are acceptable. In this case, that was Lampedusa," he said.

But he acknowledged that both countries insisted their centres for hosting would-be immigrants were full.

"I understand the concerns of the two countries," he said. "The Maltese are in an impossible situation because the size of their territory is limited."

"Other European countries must understand the gravity of the problem."

AFP / Expatica