© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Migrants stand onboard a fishing boat at the port of Paleochora, following a rescue operation off the island of Crete, Greece, November 22, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
By Gabriela Baczynska
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) -European Union ministers on Thursday sought ways to curb irregular immigration and send more people away as arrivals rose from pandemic lows, reviving controversial ideas for border fences and asylum centres outside of Europe.
EU border agency Frontex reported some 330,000 unauthorised arrivals last year, the highest since 2016, with a sharp increase on the Western Balkans route.
“We have a huge increase of irregular arrivals of migrants,” Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said at talks among the 27 EU migration ministers. “We have a very low return rate and I can see we can make significant progress here.”
Denmark, the Netherlands and Latvia were among those to call for more pressure through visas and development aid towards the roughly 20 countries – including Iraq and Senegal – that the EU deems fail to cooperate on taking back their nationals who have no right to stay in Europe.
Only about a fifth of such people were sent back last year, with insufficient resources and coordination on the EU side being another hurdle, according to the bloc’s executive.
The ministerial talks come ahead of a Feb. 9-10 summit of EU leaders – the highest political body in the bloc – who are also due to seek more returns, according to a draft of their joint statement seen by Reuters.
‘WALLS AND FENCES’
Immigration is a highly politically sensitive topic in the bloc, where member countries are bitterly divided over how to share the task of caring for those who win asylum in Europe.
The topic has become toxic since more than a million people crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 in chaotic and deadly scenes that caught the bloc off guard, overwhelmed its reception and security capacities and fanned anti-immigration sentiment.
With people on the move again following the global COVID pandemic, the debate is returning to the fore, as are some proposals dismissed in the past as inadmissible.
Denmark has been in talks with Rwanda to handle asylum applicants in East Africa, while others in the EU have sought funds for a border fence between EU member Bulgaria and Turkey – both ideas so far seen as taboo.
“We are still working to make that happen, preferably with other European countries but, as a last resort, we’ll do it only in cooperation between Denmark and, for example Rwanda,” Immigration Minister Kaare Dybvad said on Thursday.
Dutch minister Eric van der Burg said he was open to EU financing for border barriers.
Johansson sought to strike the idea down, saying: “If we spend money on walls and fences, there will be no money for other things.”
While some EU countries protest against irregular immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, often comprising people who are Muslim, Germany is seeking to open its job market to much-needed workers from outside the bloc.
“We want to conclude migration agreements with countries, particularly with North African countries, that would allow a legal route to Germany but would also include functioning returns,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said in Stockholm.