June 29, 2017 / 3:15 PM / 2 months ago

Italy gets Brussels backing for EU peers to accept migrants off boats

BRUSSELS, June 29 (Reuters) - The European Union executive on Thursday threw its weight behind Italy's plea for fellow EU states to allow humanitarian rescue boats carrying African migrants across the Mediterranean to dock in their ports to alleviate growing pressure on Rome.

About 10,000 people have been rescued over the last three days, mainly from unsafe smugglers' dinghies that had set out from Libya. Italy has taken in 82,000 refugees and migrants so far this year, a third more than a year ago.

That makes Italy the main point of entry to Europe, a fact that is increasingly influencing domestic politics. Voters dealt a blow to the ruling party in local elections last week, opting for right-wing groups promising a tougher line on immigration.

"We will support Italy in discussions on regional cooperation on disembarkation," a migration spokeswoman for the European Commission told a briefing, adding the bloc's migration ministers would tackle the matter next week in Tallinn.

"We understand Italy's concerns and we support their call for a change in the situation," she said, and the charities running search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean would also be informed.

The Commission has signalled readiness to give Italy more cash to help with increased arrivals, though officials and diplomats in Brussels were sceptical there would be any swift agreement for other EU states to take in the NGO boats. They said the ports of Barcelona and Marseille were possible options.

Spain's EU mission declined immediate comment.

A French diplomatic source said no such specific proposal was on the table at this stage and that this would be addressed at the migration ministers' meeting in the Estonian capital.

Some 1.7 million refugees and migrants have attained EU shores after perilous Mediterranean voyages since 2014.

The influx prompted a public backlash that bolstered euro-sceptic, anti-immigrant parties, prodding EU leaders into steps to curb arrivals of people fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

The EU's 28 member states have long been at loggerheads over sharing out those asylum-seekers who make it to Europe, with formerly communist eastern capitals refusing to host any to help frontline states Italy and Greece.

To discourage arrivals, the EU has turned increasingly restrictive in granting asylum and is trying to step up deportations of those judged to have arrived only to improve their standard of living, not to escape persecution or war.

It has also increased assistance to Libya and other African states in hopes of improving stability and generating enough sustainable economic opportunity there to diminish the attractiveness of a hazardous odyssey to Europe.

In addition, the EU runs a naval operation in the southern Mediterranean to rein in people smugglers.

But all these measures have not reduced the number of crossings so far.

"Politically, the situation is not good for Italy. If the arrival figures keep on rising, Rome will be in trouble," an EU diplomat said. "But there are no easy solutions. I don't think others would be happy to accept these vessels in their ports." (Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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