By FRANCES D’EMILIO
ROME (AP) — Five European Union nations on the Mediterranean who fear possible waves of refugees driven by hunger out of Africa called Saturday for an end to the EU’s “voluntary” solidarity on migrants and a better way to redistribute the burden of caring for them.
The Interior ministers from Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Spain wrapped up two days of talks in Venice amid worries that the blockade of Ukraine grain exports due to Russia’s invasion could see huge numbers of refugees from Africa flooding southern Europe.
Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told reporters that robust, common EU policy is needed on migration. “Solidarity is not a slogan, nor can it be void of substance,” Nouris said.
Past EU policies in which member countries could offer to receive some of the hundreds of thousands of migrants landing in Italy, Greece and other southern shores proved grossly inadequate.
Many EU countries didn’t step forward. Others, even with they did pledge to receive modest numbers of some of the hundreds of thousands of migrants rescued from smugglers’ unseaworthy boats, didn’t follow through.
“Solidarity in our mind cannot be voluntary,” Nouris said.
He noted that after several years of Cyprus taking in migrants, now 5% of the eastern Mediterranean island nation’s population consists of asylum-seekers.
The meeting did not address the millions of Ukrainian refugees who recently flooded into northern EU nations like Poland, Hungary and Romania.
How Europe handles large numbers of migrants takes on particular urgency now, amid fears that drought in Africa and surging food prices even before the war made shipping Ukrainian grain to Somalia, Egypt and other poor nations impossible could drive up the already alarmingly numbers of hungry people.
In the Sahel, the part of Africa just below the Sahara desert, an estimated 18 million people are facing severe hunger as farmers endure their worst production season in more than a decade.
Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese cited the blocking of grain in Ukraine as just another reason for the EU to develop a “adequate mechanism of distributing migrants” among its members.
She also pressed for more repatriation agreements with countries whose people are seeking a better life in Europe but had their asylum bids rejected since they are fleeing poverty, not war or persecution.
Italy has an effective repatriation agreement with Tunisia, but not with most other countries in Africa or in Asia whose citizens take to smugglers’ boats to try to reach southern European shores. As a result, even though their asylum applications fail, many migrants remain in Italy, often taking illegal jobs or resorting to begging.
Greece’s interior minister expressed support for more legal paths for migration.
“We cannot let smugglers decide who comes to live in Europe,” minister Notis Mitarachi told reporters.