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EU Ministers Meet in Paris on Divisive Issue of Migrants

French Foreign Minister Le Drian, welcomes Director of the UN Migration Agency Antonio de Carvalho Ferreira Vitorino, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, July 22, 2019.

European ministers met Monday in Paris seeking some unity on how to deal with migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, people who are now being blocked out of ports by Italy and Malta, dragged back unwillingly to lawless Libya or used as pawns in political standoffs across Europe.

Yet absent from the closed-door meeting of European Union interior and foreign ministers was Italy's populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who tweeted a day earlier his strong disagreement with letting France and Germany determine the bloc's refugee policy while nations like Italy are on the front line.

"We intend to make ourselves respected," Salvini declared in another tweet.

Despite Salvini's absence, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas voiced hope that a solution was on the horizon.

"The haggling about emergency rescue in the Mediterranean must finally end," Maas said at a briefing later for reporters. "It is really necessary that we manage to put together a coalition of those who are prepared to help, and I think we came a step closer to that today."

He said talks would continue among interior ministers about how an ad hoc mechanism might look that would make it possible for Italy and Malta to open their harbors.

Thousands of migrants set off each year in smuggler's boats from Libya, a war-torn North African nation where migrants are kept in prison-like camps that international authorities have called appalling. The International Organization for Migration says up to June 19, there were 2,252 arrivals in Italy and 1,151 in Malta on the central Mediterranean route while at least 343 other people died trying — all far below the numbers who arrived in previous years.

France has stressed the need for European countries to share the arriving migrants, who are often traveling on traffickers' flimsy boats and rescued by humanitarian groups.

The meeting, called by French President Emmanuel Macron, preceded talks later Monday between Macron and the U.N. chiefs for refugees and migration.

On Sunday, the SOS Mediterranee, a French charity, partnering with Doctors Without Borders, announced it has returned to the sea with a new boat to save migrants, seven months after the flag was pulled from its original ship, Aquarius. The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking is heading to the Mediterranean with a 31-member crew, the group said.

Salvini wasted no time in warning SOS Mediterranee that Italy was not about to bend on its policy of keeping rescue ships at bay, tweeting Monday, "if someone is thinking about helping smugglers or breaking laws, be careful because we won't be standing still."

The Aquarius, SOS Mediterranee's original rescue ship, ended its operations last fall after Panama revoked its flag and Italian prosecutors ordered the vessel seized, accusing Doctors Without Borders of illegally disposing of tons of contaminated and medical waste. The organization says the Aquarius assisted 30,000 migrants since 2016.

Monday's meeting follows a gathering of EU interior ministers on the issue of rescuing migrants last week in Helsinki, Finland, which holds the rotating EU presidency. Salvini hailed the progress in Helsinki, saying other ministers shared Italy's position of revamping Mediterranean search and rescue rules with the aim of preventing immigration abuses.