By Alastair Macdonald
European Union governments are set to agree on Thursday to step up deportations of illegal immigrants and beef up the EU’s border guard service as they try to cope with a surge in refugees from war-torn Syria.
Diplomats say interior ministers meeting in Luxembourg should agree, among other things, to back the detention of those who may abscond before expulsion and exert more pressure on African and other poor states, including via aid budgets, to make them accept the return of citizens refused entry to Europe.
In the evening, they will be joined by EU foreign ministers and delegations from Balkan states, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon for talks on stemming migrant flows that have plunged the bloc into crisis, dividing members over how to secure the EU external borders and how to share responsibility for housing refugees.
“Returns are always tough,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said on arrival. “But … we can only offer space and support to refugees in need of protection if those who don’t need protection don’t come or are quickly returned.”
In recent years, fewer than 40 percent of people whose asylum claims are rejected have actually then left the EU.
Also being discussed are closer cooperation on external frontiers, especially in the Mediterranean, from where hundreds of thousands have made their way north, prompting some countries to suspend passport-free travel inside Europe’s Schengen area.
“A Europe without secure external borders will be a Europe with internal border checks,” de Maiziere said. “We don’t want that.”
Echoing a call by President Francois Hollande on Wednesday, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve proposed beefing up the EU’s Frontex borders agency and in time establishing a full European Border Guard service with expanded powers to step in where national authorities had difficulty managing EU frontiers.
The meetings are part of efforts to implement a package of measures put forward by EU officials over the past six months and which have this week involved the start of negotiations with Turkey, temporary home to more than half of the four million Syrian refugees, to try and discourage people from travelling.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who angered some of her eastern neighbours over the summer by offering a welcome to more Syrians, made clear in a speech on Wednesday that Europe would also do more to deter and expel the hundreds of thousands who reach Europe every year illegally in search of prosperity.
A draft of conclusions of Thursday’s interior ministers’ meeting, seen by Reuters, reads: “The EU and its member states must do more in terms of return. Increased return rates should act as a deterrent to irregular migration.”
Other elements of EU migration policy include increasing aid for refugees who stay in the Middle East and tightening procedures for identification on arrival in Italy and Greece.
One of the most divisive issues for EU states has been new programmes to relocate asylum seekers from the frontline states of Italy and Greece around the bloc. Ex-communist eastern states have been very vocal in rejecting large-scale immigration.
However, the first such relocation, of Eritreans heading to Sweden from Italy, is due to take place on Friday. That movement has been a key demand of Rome and Athens, who are in turn under pressure to accept EU personnel to help control their borders.
The coming months will provide a major test of how realistic EU plans are. Italy has already warned that it is not willing to host “concentration camps”. The lack of border controls between EU states presents a major challenge to the plan to direct asylum-seekers to particular parts of the bloc.