Ministers from five EU Mediterranean states meeting in Malta emphasised the need for a hardline approach to illegal migration at a summit on Saturday.
The emphasis of the so-called Med5 meeting in Valletta was on prevention and repatriation rather than beefing up rescues at sea.
Europe's voluntary solidarity mechanism is "not producing the desired results", Greek Migration minister Notis Mirarchi argued, emphasising the need to repatriate those arriving in Europe illegally.
It is important to distinguish between those deserving of protection under the law and those who are not, he said, stressing that illegal arrivals "should be sent back... to their country of origin."
Costas Constantinou, the Cypriot Permanent Secretary in the Interior Ministry added: "It is time... to demonstrate zero-tolerance" to illegal migration.
Top officials from Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Spain convened in the hopes of presenting a united front when EU member states discuss a common migration policy next week.
The Malta meeting took place just days after at least 69 migrants, including 12 children, died after their boat sank in rough seas off southern Italy.
The EU has been split on the issue of boat migration for years, with southern states complaining they were carrying the brunt of migration from Africa and the east, as northern states remain reluctant to adopt the so-called ‘burden sharing’ concept.
The five ministers want a mechanism whereby the system of relocating approved migrants to EU states will become mandatory and not remain voluntary.
At a press conference following the summit, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri said it was important to build strong and comprehensive agreements with countries of origin with a view of repatriating those who are not eligible for protection.
"More needs to be done," he said while calling for a permanent solidarity mechanism which includes a repatriation directive.
Recent years have seen increased cooperation between Maltese and Libyan authorities, including the signing of an agreement in 2020 to establish migration coordination centres in Libya.
Humanitarian organisations have lambasted approaches to push back migrants leaving the Libyan coast.
A UN Security Council report published in December last year, however, highlighted widespread human rights violations and serious humanitarian and protection concerns for migrants in Libya.
When asked whether it was appropriate that migrants are returned to a country where such concerns existed, the minister said all provisions were made for those legally entitled to protection.
Camilleri said the five states were calling for a “carrot and stick approach” underlining the need to resort to certain measures to meet their aims.
“We need prevention. If human traffickers keep operating this way, we will keep seeing accidents. Search and rescue operations, even if we have the most efficient, will not eliminate disasters because it only takes a few seconds to see a tragedy unfolding... We need surveillance in international waters. We want Frontex to work with member states to repatriate those who aren't entitled to protection.”
Also in attendance at the summit was the director of EU border Agency Frontex and Sweden’s Migration minister Maria Malmer Stenergard. Sweden currently presides over the EU Council.
Stenergard acknowledged it was important to recognise the specific challenges faced by frontline member states with maritime borders.
Return of migrants was important, she agreed, as was addressing the root causes of migration.
The recent shipwreck off the coast of Calabria demonstrated the complex situation involved in search and rescue in the Mediterranean, she said.
Greek Migration minister Notis Mirarchi added it was "very important to reduce the level of irregular arrivals to the European Union."Last week, the majority of member states had signed a declaration "promoting the protection of external borders and the need to erect fences where needed", he noted.
What is the Med5?
The Med5 is an informal grouping of EU Mediterranean member states, established in 2020 in an effort to form a united front when negotiating for new EU migration and asylum rules.
Apart from pushing for greater cooperation with so-called countries of origin where migrants depart from, the group also pushes for greater solidarity among all EU member states in sharing responsibility for asylum seekers who reach Europe.
Despite Med5 efforts, there has been little progress in achieving a common EU migration policy. The closest thing to an agreement so far has been a ‘solidarity declaration’ presented last summer, providing for a voluntary solidarity contribution mechanism through which member states would agree to either relocate some asylum seekers or pay a financial contribution instead.