By James Crisp
(EurActiv) — The European Commission said Tuesday it could agree to a suspension of border-free travel in the Schengen zone of up to two years, and that nearly two thirds of migrants entering the EU in December were not eligible for asylum because they did not come from conflict zones.
The refugee crisis has meant some European countries have reintroduced border controls in the passport-free Schengen zone of 26 nations. Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, France have introduced border controls with a six month limit. Non-EU member state Norway has introduced temporary controls. Poland is considering doing the same.
On Monday (25 January), EU home affairs ministers meeting in Amsterdam called on the Commission to extend the time limit countries are allowed to suspend Schengen. Article 26 of the Schengen treaty could see it suspended for up to two years, if public order and security concerns are judged serious enough. A decision on some kind of extension will likely be needed by May.
Today, the Commission said it did not think that the situation was serious enough to warrant the extension. But, it said it was pursuing options available to it under Article 26.
“We know that migratory flows are not going to be subsiding soon and as the weather changes are even likely to increase. So if situation does not change there could indeed be justifications under public order and security reasons to maintain internal controls as long as external borders not effectively controlled,” said spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud.
Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, President Jean-Claude Juncker’s right-hand man, made the comments about economic migrants to a Dutch newspaper.
The European Commission said the figures were from Frontex, the EU’s border agency. They were not yet public, Bertaud told reporters in Brussels.
“[The figures] showed that for December, the share of people not likely to be eligible for asylum is a lot higher than we’ve seen in rest of 2015.”
She said the figure, the latest available, was “roughly 60%”. What we are seeing in January is that this might be dropping again, Bertaud said.
Timmermans had used the figures to highlight the need for an effective, EU-wide migrant return policy. “The point First Vice-President Timmermans was trying to make is that we have to focus on return policies. Citizens’ support for genuine asylum seekers will be weakened if those who don’t have the right to international protection are also allowed to stay in Europe,” Bertaud added.
“We are determined to do whatever it takes,” said Commission Chief Spokesman Margaritis Schinas, “to make sure there is a clear differentiation between those who are protected under international law and economic migrants, which are trying to seize the opportunity to enter Europe and have to be returned.”
But the system – involving ‘hotspots’ for registration, relocation centres for approved refugees, and eventual relocation, is not working.
At yesterday’s meeting in Amsterdam, two Greek representatives said they had tried but failed to send back migrants from Morocco and Pakistan.
The executive admitted that there were difficulties in returning economic migrants. The EU has a readmission agreement with Pakistan, but there had been problems with returning Pakistan nationals from Greece since last year. There is no readmission agreement with Morocco yet, but it was being negotiated.
“We still have problems getting readmission put into practice,” Bertaud said today. “What the Commission is doing now is looking at possible incentives, both positive and negative, to make sure it is applied.”
A Pakistani man was stabbed to death on the Greek-Macedonian border yesterday. The incident occurred near no-man’s-land on the border between Greece and Macedonia, where thousands of migrants of different nationalities gather daily, hoping to secure passage to other destinations in Europe.
Two other Pakistanis were hurt in the early morning attack allegedly carried out by Afghans, local police said.
Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said after Monday’s meeting in Amsterdam that member states needed to take some of the blame for its failures. The relocation of refugees has so far been a failure.
“We find ourselves with more internal border controls, questionable legislative procedures towards asylum seekers or refugees, less solidarity, less responsibility, and more individual and uncoordinated decisions,” he said.
“I will be very frank with you, this year has not started very easily. I can tell you I am not optimistic but I am not defeatist, and neither is the Commission.”
But Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said this morning, “I feel that we in the EU are now committing ritual suicide and we’re just looking on.”
Denmark today votes on laws requiring migrants to give up their valuables to pay for their housing. The wealthy Scandinavian country is not the only country targeting refugee possessions.
Switzerland has started taking valuables worth over 1,000 Swiss francs ($985), the German state of Baden-Württemberg secures valuables above 350 euros ($380), while other southern states have been reported to do the same.
Denmark is not the only one trying to shut its doors to migrants. Sweden, which took in over 160,000 refugees last year, the most per capita in Europe, introduced checks on its border to Denmark at the start of the year.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven promised on Monday more resources for police after a 22-year-old employee was stabbed to death at a refugee centre for unaccompanied minors. A minor was arrested suspected of murder or manslaughter after the incident in Molndal in western Sweden, local TT news agency reported.
Member states that do not tackle immigration should be temporarily suspended from the Schengen area, the President of the European People’s Party (EPP), Joseph Daul, told EurActiv yesterday.
An extension of border controls has also sparked concerns that Greece, the landing point for about 80% of all migrants arriving in Europe, could be effectively frozen out of Schengen. The Commission denied yesterday that any such plans existed.
“If we do not manage to secure Europe’s external border, this is the Greek-Turkish border, the European external border will move towards central Europe,” Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said Monday. Last week Mikl-Leitner warned Athens could face “temporary exclusion” from Schengen.
The Prime Minister of Kosovo is expected in Brussels tomorrow to discuss an association agreement with the EU. Reports that he would not attend because of the EU’s refusal to liberalise the visa system, to allow easier travel into the EU, were denied by the Commission.
Five migrants were killed on Tuesday when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross from Turkey’s western coast to EU member Greece, reports said.
16 more people were rescued by air and by sea in a search and rescue operation by the Turkish coastguard, the Dogan news agency said.
The migrants had earlier set off from the district Didim in Aydin province in an apparent bid to reach the Greek island of Farmakonisi.
Turkey, which is home to at least 2.2 million refugees from Syria’s civil war, has become a hub for migrants seeking to reach Europe, many of whom pay people smugglers thousands of dollars for the risky crossing.
Ankara reached an agreement with the EU in November to stem the flow of refugees heading to Europe, in return for €3 billion in financial assistance.
But the deal and the onset of winter do not appear to have deterred the migrants, with boats still arriving on the Greek islands daily.
According to a statement by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Tuesday, 45,361 migrants have arrived in Greece by sea so far this year, 31 times more than for all of January 2015.
Some 90% of the new arrivals are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan,it added. The IOM said it has recorded 158 deaths in the eastern Mediterranean this year, along with 19 more in the central Mediterranean, bringing the total number of deaths in 2016 to 177.