Southern European countries on Saturday showed a united front at a meeting in Athens to hammer out common proposals for an EU pact on migration.
Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Malta, and Spain are taking part in the talks ahead of a March 25-26 EU summit focusing on EU-Turkey relations.
Four of those southern EU countries that bear the brunt of refugee arrivals — Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain — have already told the European Commission that a proposed New Pact on Migration and Asylum does not share the burden of migrants arriving in Europe widely enough.
The four governments said in November 2020 that "mandatory relocation should remain and be pursued as the main solidarity tool".
The Commission wants to overhaul the rules so that the asylum-seekers are shared out across the 27 member countries and not left the responsibility of Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain.
Aware that some countries, mainly eastern EU states, resist that, the new pact proposes they contribute funds instead to help the others taking in asylum-seekers.
The pact was presented in September 2020, opening negotiations between member states and MEPs that could run for months or years before a final text is arrived at.
Ministers in charge of migratory issues on Saturday agreed proposals for "basic improvements" on the issue of relocations in the proposed pact.
The ministers who met at a hotel in Vouliagmeni, a seaside suburb of Athens, were joined by the vice-president of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas, and the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
"The new pact should include basic improvements," Greek Migration Minister and host Notis Mitarachi said in a statement.
He added that "there is a lack of balance between the obligations of the countries of first reception and the uncertain mechanism of solidarity of the rest of the EU".
"We have to ensure that the new pact won't allow in future the emergence of new camps like Moria", referring to a notorious Greek Island refugee camp destroyed by fire.
Fernando Gomez, Spain's Interior Minister, stressed the importance of effective European cooperation with third nations, namely migrants' countries of origin and those they pass through on their way to Europe, "as the most effective formula of illegal migration prevention".
The need for a repatriation mechanism coordinated by the European Commission was also underlined by Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese while Malta's Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri said that "unfortunately, the relocation of migrants from the first reception countries remain to a great extent voluntary".
Cyprus Interior Minister Nikos Nouris blamed Turkey for "organised and systematic provocative activity" in relation to migrants.
Cyprus and Greece are strongly critical of Turkey.
Ever since a migration crisis in 2015 that saw over a million asylum-seekers enter Europe, the EU's refugee and migration rules have been exposed as deficient.
Under a 2016 EU-Turkey pact, Ankara had agreed to take back migrants not entitled to international protection in return for billions of euros in aid.
But Ankara has long accused the EU of not fulfilling its end of the bargain while it continues to host more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
"It is a high time for geography to be reconciled with solidarity," Schinas said earlier on Saturday, adding that the new pact should "reassure the European South that the handling of the migratory issue starts outside our borders".