Five Mediterranean countries on the front line of mass migration to Europe demand their EU partners share the burden more equitably, saying "we can no longer be punished for our geographical position."
Mediterranean countries on the frontline of Europe's migration crisis have called for more solidarity from EU governments and said a proposed overhaul of migration rules did not go far enough.
"In its current format, the pact does not provide sufficient reassurances to the frontline member states," the interior and migration ministers of Greece, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Malta said in a joint statement on Saturday after a summit of the so-called MED5 in Athens.
The ministers called for more cooperation with origin or transit countries, a centrally-managed European returns mechanism, and relocation of asylum seekers among all member states.
"We cannot have the five Mediterranean member states taking all of the pressure from the rest of the European Union," Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi told Reuters news agency.
"We need the solidarity to be mandatory."
“We can no longer be punished for our geographical position,” Malta’s Byron Camilleri said.
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Evasive final deal
The EU has fought bitterly since 2015, when over 1 million people, most of them Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan refugees, arrived on its shores, the majority through Greece.
A new pact to tackle the issue was put forward by the European Commission last September but a final deal has yet to be reached.
Arrivals have dropped significantly to about 95,000 people last year, according to United Nations data, most to Italy, Spain and Greece.
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The EU's top migration official, Margaritis Schinas, said Mediterranean countries were "forced, by geography, to carry a disproportionately large burden of the refugee crisis".
"Mandatory solidarity" is the most sensitive part of the pact, obliging each country to host some migrants by either accepting migrants, sponsoring their return to countries of origin or offering material assistance on the ground to arrival countries.
The right-wing nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary oppose the plan, even though under the Commission proposal the EU would pay a country 10,000 euros per adult taken in.
Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said "a lot still needs to be done."
"We'll be asking in Europe for compulsory relocation, even if it's in limited numbers. We've been absolutely in agreement on this," she told Reuters.
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Protest in solidarity with refugees in Athens
More than a thousand people protested in solidarity with migrants and refugees in the centre of Athens on Saturday.
Protesters called for the safety, right to asylum and education of migrants, who often braved harrowing and dangerous journeys to arrive at Europe's shores.
Petros Konstantinou, National Coordinator for KERFA (movement against racism and fascism), said, "this demonstration is the cry for justice, for the refugees and the migrants who live in this country."
"We do not want them to die in the Mediterranean sea, on the closed borders of the European Union. We do not want concentration camps. We want asylum, papers, rights, and schools for their children."
Ocean Viking rescuers pick up 100 migrants off Libya
Meanwhile, crew members of the Ocean Viking humanitarian vessel on Saturday rescued more than a hundred migrants off the Libyan coast, the European NGO running the boat said.
"Today, #OceanViking rescued around 106 children, women & men from an overcrowded dinghy that had run into trouble in international waters around 34 nautical miles from #Libya," SOS Mediterrannee tweeted.
"A person who was unconscious was evacuated to the ship and is recovering. Several survivors are in great emotional distress," the Marseille-based NGO said.
An official for SOS Mediterrannee told AFP news agency that the rescued migrants included 31 men, eight women and 67 children, of whom 51 were unaccompanied.
Libya has become a key route for irregular migration to Europe.
While many migrants have drowned at sea, thousands have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to Libya.
Most migrants leave from Libya and Tunisia attempting a hazardous Mediterranean crossing to try to enter Europe through Italy.
More than 1,200 died last year while trying to cross the Mediterranean.