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EU in disarray over migrant rescue and resettlement plan

The UK and Hungary clash with Brussels over resettlement plans, as Libya rejects proposed military action in its waters
The 28-member state bloc has proposed military action to destroy the vessels used by people smugglers (AFP)

The European Union has clashed with the UK over a plan to save thousands of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, which includes controversial resettlement quotas for refugees.

The UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May called for economic migrants to be sent back, saying the EU's manner of dealing with asylum claims of people rescued at sea encouraged more people to risk their lives by attempting the journey.

The call came as the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Europe to accept more migrants, saying that his own country is currently hosting more than two million non-nationals.

Turkey shares a land border with EU states Greece and Bulgaria, but both borders are secured by huge walls.

The EU has been under fire for closing off its land borders, meaning that migrants must risk the dangerous Mediterranean sea route in an attempt to reach Europe.

The EU recently pledged to triple funding to a sea rescue mission after some 1,800 people died in shipwrecks off the coast of Libya, but is now riven by discord over a new plan to tackle the crisis.

The most controversial elements of the plan are a mandatory redistribution of asylum seekers across the 28-member bloc, and the proposed use of European military force against smugglers in Libyan waters.

The UK, Ireland and Denmark have the ability to opt out of the plan, which comes amid an unprecedented wave of migrants fleeing conflict and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East.

In the wake of May’s comments, EU officials hit back, accusing her of wanting to “do nothing”.

"I wonder how anyone could maintain that this could make the situation worse," European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans told a press conference on Wednesday.

"If we do nothing, we make the situation worse for people in trouble and lose credibility in the eyes of our citizens who have demanded that we do something about the tragedies in the Mediterranean."

Timmermans, the right-hand man to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, called on EU states to show "solidarity" with countries such as Italy, Greece and Malta, which as coastal states receive the largest number of asylum applications from people who have crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa.

'Turn migrants back'

Writing in The Times newspaper, May confirmed that Britain would take no part in the Commission's quota plan, and said the EU should be pushing back economic migrants.

"I disagree with the suggestion by the EU's high representative, Federica Mogherini, that 'no migrants' intercepted at sea should be 'sent back against their will'," she wrote.

"Such an approach would only act as an increased pull factor across the Mediterranean and encourage more people to put their lives at risk."

May's comments also underscore the clashes to come between newly re-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron and his European partners as he pushes for reform on migration and other issues ahead of a referendum on the UK’s EU membership.

If the UK, Ireland and Denmark opt out then the other 25 EU states can still pass the plan, which is set to go before European leaders at a summit at the end of June.

But that could spark anger from other countries, especially as immigration is such a sensitive political issue for many member states. 

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban - whose country has no opt-out - last week called the quota plan "mad and unfair".

A private ship run by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station rescues people off the coast of Libya (AFP)

No boots on the ground

Until now, EU states have admitted refugees on a voluntary basis under the principle that their asylum requests are processed in the country where they land, not the country they are trying to get to.

The commission said it would table a legislative proposal by the end of the year to establish binding quotas on member states to admit migrants, but it set out no immediate quota numbers.

Under the plan the EU will also resettle 20,000 refugees directly from third countries.

Amnesty International hailed the commission's plan as a "welcome shift" toward, not only a greater stress on search and rescue operations for migrants and refugees, but also on establishing safe and legal routes for them to enter the EU.

But it also warned member states against undermining the plan.

"Today we have seen the European Commission take a first step in shifting its Fortress Europe attitude towards the refugee crisis, but it will need to be implemented expansively and with the full backing of all EU member states," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's director for Europe and Central Asia.

The military angle has also run into difficulties, with Mogherini winning little support during an appeal to the UN Security Council on Monday for its backing for the use of European military force against smugglers in Libyan territorial waters.

During the press conference in Brussels, Mogherini reiterated that there would be no European "boots on the ground" in North Africa and that any action to destroy people smugglers' boats would be purely naval.

Some have questioned the legality of a move to bomb the boats of people smugglers in Libyan territorial waters, saying that destroying the vessels people use to migrate is a violation of the right to claim asylum.

Libya has also rejected the proposals, saying it is “very worried” by the prospect of military intervention.