EU says Italian asylum hotspots running

Mattarella says time for European 'responsibility'

(ANSA) - Rome, September 16 - The European Union on Wednesday said that so-called hotspots for processing asylum claims were already up and running in Italy - directly contradicting Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and other government officials who had vowed that the spots would only become operational once the EU agreed to share the burden of repatriations.
    Speaking on Italian TV Tuesday night, Gentiloni noted that, for example, thousand and thousands of economic migrants would have to be repatriated from the second hotspot nation, Greece - an operation "on a scale not seen since the Berlin air lift".
    "Can we expect Greece to pay for that on its own," he asked, saying that the EU principle of burden sharing must include not only mandatory quotas under a new EU right of asylum but also a special fund to help the countries of greater migrant reception pay for sending them back home if their asylum claims are turned down.
    Interior Minister Angelino Alfano reiterated this Wednesday, saying that "we are ready" to set up migrant registration centres called hotspots but they will only be activated "at the same time as the redistribution of the 24,000 asylum seekers (envisaged by mandatory quotas that were blocked at a recent EU summit) and repatriations".
    In the same vein, other officials from the ruling Democratic Party (PD) have suggested that EU structural funds be withheld from those member States who are unwilling to do their fair bit for the migrant and refugee emergency.
    "This is something that should be considered," said Friuli-Venezia Giulia Governor Deborah Serracchiani, "for those eastern European countries that are refusing to take migrants in or let them pass - such as Hungary, which has arrested hundreds of refugees at its newly constructed fence on the border with Serbia.
    The Italian media, and some opposition figures, have also voiced voices that, given the sluggishness of Italian bureaucracy, the hotspots would become "major refugee camps on Italian soil, with all the problems they entail".
    But optimists have retorted that foreign expertise, such as from the UNHCR, will be brought in to make the hotspots work more quickly and efficiently.
    At all events, Natasha Bertaud, the European Commission's migration spokesperson, said Wednesday that the so-called hotspots being created to process asylum claims were already starting to work in Italy. "Experts from EASO, Frontex, Eurojust and Europol are in Italy and the hotspots are starting to function, so it will be possible to start the relocations from the start of October," she said. ANSA sources said Italy and Greece had both delivered their roadmaps for dealing with the refugee emergency to Brussels.
    But Italian President Sergio Mattarella appeared to resist EU pressure on Italy to open the hotspots by saying that "a comprehensive response" including repatriations, quotas and other burden sharing was needed before they could become operational. "Only that way is an effective response possible", he said.
    Mattarella added that an "assumption of responsibility by the European Union" was necessary to deal with the refugee emergency after a meeting with his Austrian counterpart Heinz Fischer. "This is a growing phenomenon whose size means it must have common EU management and not be handled by the individual countries," Mattarella said.
    "The EU must be more present on all dossiers," Mattarella added.
    Europe's migrant crisis took another ugly turn Wednesday when Hungarian riot police used tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons to beat back hundreds of people massed at the border with Serbia after some broke through a gate. Children cried as they fled from the acrid smoke, and several people fainted in the chaos. With the route through Hungary apparently closed, some migrants set out on a longer, more arduous route into Western Europe through Croatia.
    With several countries having closed their borders - Germany and others temporarily given a huge surge in Syrian refugees - Italian officials have highlighted the risks to the free movement of people enshrined in the Schengen Accords.
    European Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a plenary session of the European Parliament Wednesday the closure of borders by several EU members "is not the end of Schengen, Schengen exists, it's a great success of the EU and we will defend it".
    Avramopoulos told the EP that "the defence of borders with violence is not compatible with European values and principles".
    Slovenia on Wednesday became the latest country to restore temporary border controls along its border with Hungary.
    With the Hungarian fence in place, many Syrian refugees were said to be returning to Croatia, running the risk of straying into areas peppered with old mines from the conflict that ensued when Yugoslavia broke up.
    UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "shocked at seeing how some migrants and refugees are being treated, it's not acceptable." He said "these are people fleeing war and persecution and they must be treated with human dignity".
    Ban urged all States to "assume their responsibilities and carry out their legal obligations".
    Hungarian Premier Viktor Urban said that if EU quotas became law they would have to be "accepted".
    He said that a fence would also go up on the border with Croatia.