France planned to take another group of 100 refugees from Malta next year, French Immigration Minister Eric Besson said yesterday as the first group of 99 prepared to leave the island on July 9.

France is the first country to implement the pilot project tailor-made for Malta and agreed upon by EU leaders last week.

Eighty adult refugees and 19 children will be relocating to three villages in the north of the country. Next year, France will take another 80 adults and between 10 and 30 children.

Addressing a joint press conference with Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, Mr Besson said he had come to Malta to express solidarity with a country that was facing "extreme pressures" of illegal migration.

He also visited because he wanted to meet the refugees who would soon be starting a new life in his country: "France has the rights of asylum seekers at heart".

"I also came to symbolically send a message to other EU member states on how burden-sharing can work effectively," he added.

Replying to a question on whether he expected other countries to follow France's example by taking more refugees from Malta, Mr Besson said: "I cannot say I expect them to do anything because I cannot impose this. But, yes, I hope they follow our example and are inspired by what we did, always within their possibilities".

On whether he agreed that the voluntary burden-sharing mechanism should become mandatory, Mr Besson said the voluntary agreement and the pilot project for Malta were "a step in the right direction".

"Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Italy wanted the pact to be mandatory but there were other states that did not agree. Voluntary is the first step which led to this pilot project and I hope this will develop into other proper mechanisms," he said.

He added that, although France was committing itself to take another 100 immigrants next year, it was not making an annual commitment.

France would continue collaborating with other member states to combat illegal human trafficking whose "misery was being exploited by traffickers who are becoming increasingly professional".

Dr Mifsud Bonnici thanked France for leading by example and for showing that "burden-sharing can be achieved". He said the pact on asylum and immigration materialised under the French EU Presidency and France was the first country to take refugees from Malta under the new pilot project.

He said it was easy to say another country should take refugees but this was difficult because a lot of considerations had to be taken into account. "It is one thing to welcome people but a different thing to integrate them," he said.

The aim was to develop the pilot project into a proper mechanism for more people to move from Malta to other EU states while strengthening Frontex patrols to repatriate those who did not have a right for refugee status or humanitarian protection.

Earlier in the day, Mr Besson met the refugees who will be leaving Malta next month and presented each with a medal with the symbols of France. The children, on their part, gave him an A3 painting depicting the French, Maltese and EU flags and the words "thank you" written underneath.

Gathered at the French Ambassador's residence in Żebbuġ under the scorching midday sun, the refugees expressed gratitude to Mr Besson and Ambassador Daniel Rondeau for giving them the chance to relocate.


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