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EU moves on migrant plans, while 100 more lost at sea

Migrants who survived the sinking of a boat off the coast of Libya and bodies of babies were brought ashore Friday east of the capital, Tripoli.
Migrants who survived the sinking of a boat off the coast of Libya and bodies of babies were brought ashore Friday east of the capital, Tripoli. MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders Friday drew up new plans to screen migrants in North Africa for eligibility to enter Europe, and Libya’s Coast Guard said about 100 people were missing and feared dead after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean.

As EU officials met for a second day in Brussels, they said they had set aside major differences over stemming the flow of people seeking sanctuary or better lives. But the show of unity did little to hide the fact that the hardest work lies ahead.

In the latest reported capsizing, Libyan Coast Guard spokesman Ayoub Gassim said 16 people were rescued from the water east of the capital, Tripoli, and the bodies of three children were recovered. A Yemeni survivor said the boat carried about 125 people.

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The crew of the rescue ship Astral, operated by the Spanish Proactiva humanitarian group, said Italian officials had told it to let the Libyan Coast Guard respond to a distress call from the boat. Shortly afterward, they heard that the migrants were missing and feared dead in the same area.

The Libyan Coast Guard on Friday also had intercepted three other smuggling boats carrying about 345 people east of Tripoli. Spanish maritime rescue services brought ashore 90 people pulled from boats as they tried to cross the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco.

The leaders meeting in Brussels agreed on a ‘‘new approach’’ to manage those rescued at sea, as bickering over who should take responsibility for them undermines unity and threatens cross-border business and travel in Europe.

Italy, Greece, and Spain bear responsibility for accepting most of the migrants and have felt abandoned by their EU partners. Italy, with a new anti-European government, has refused to take charge of people rescued at sea in recent weeks, sparking a diplomatic row with France and Malta.

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In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner is demanding she take a tougher line on migrants, undermining her leadership.

The new plan is to receive people from rescue ships in EU nations that agree to share responsibility for handling migration with the EU’s main point-of-entry countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece. But they also will receive them in centers in North Africa and possibly the Balkans.

‘‘A complete approach was adopted,’’ President Emmanuel Macron of France told reporters after a night of haggling and delays to address demands from Italy that its views be incorporated in the final summit statement.

‘‘We are protecting better. We are cooperating more. And we are reaffirming our principles. All hastily made solutions, be they solely national ones or a betrayal of our values that consists in pushing people off to third countries, were clearly set aside,’’ Macron said.

Even new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose populist government has rocked the EU’s political landscape, said: ‘‘On the whole, we can say we are satisfied.’’

‘‘Italy is no longer alone, as we requested,’’ he said.

That said, the Czech Republic and Austria have no intention of basing migrant centers on their territory.

‘‘Why should there be centers? Center should be outside of Europe. Ellis Island, yes? And the Australian model, very simple. We have to execute this,’’ Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said.

The ‘‘disembarkation platforms’’ are a logical extension of the EU’s migrant deal with Turkey. The government in Ankara was paid more than 3 billion euros in refugee aid to stop people leaving for the Greek islands.

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The bottom line is that numbers have dropped by about 96 percent, compared with 2015 when well over 1 million people entered Europe, most of them fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger, and Tunisia are mentioned as possible locations, even though details of the plans are sketchy. Morocco has refused and none of those listed has volunteered to take part.

The EU’s Executive Commission now must draft something more concrete in coordination with the UN’s refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration, which would prefer to operate in European migration centers only.

Libya is a major transit point to Europe for those fleeing poverty and violence in Africa and the Middle East. Traffickers have exploited Libya’s chaos following the 2011 uprising that toppled and later killed dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

How much the plans will cost remains a mystery, but it won’t be cheap.

The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, cautiously welcomed the plan but warned that it must be fleshed out and that African involvement via the African Union regional bloc is ‘‘indispensable.’’

IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle said his agency was ‘‘very pleased at the solidarity and consensus’’ that emerged in Brussels, in particular with front-line states such as Italy.

Doyle said he believed most of the ‘‘disembarkation centers’’ would be in Europe, although he said it was up to the EU to determine which countries would host them.

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