Tusk: Detaining migrants for up to 18 months is legal

Council President Donald Tusk organises and chairs EU summits. [European Council]

Irregular migrants to Europe should be detained for as long as needed to check their identity, up to the 18 months allowed by international law, European Council President Donald Tusk said on Wednesday (2 December).

In an interview with several newspapers marking his first year in office, the man whose job it is to forge common EU policy among 28 national governments said Europe had to stop a huge influx of migrants, most of them not refugees from war, and should not underestimate the security threat it represented.

“Please don’t downplay the role of security. If you want to screen migrants and refugees, you need more time than only one minute to fingerprint,” Tusk told The Guardian.

A former Polish prime minister, Tusk played down differences with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has taken a lead in accepting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. But he stressed that it was a priority to protect the external frontiers of Europe’s internal, passport-free Schengen zone.

Speaking two weeks after the Islamic State attacks in Paris, in which some of the militants may have reached France from Syria via the migration route to Greece, Tusk said border guards needed time to properly identify people who were arriving in the EU.

Stating that international and EU rules allowed detention up to 18 months for such checks, he was quoted by Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung as saying: “We can and should hold migrants for as long as needed until the verification is complete.”

Italy and Greece, the main countries of entry to the EU for irregular migrants, have been reluctant to detain people and the United Nations says people seeking asylum should be locked up only as a last resort. EU officials, however, have grown impatient with large numbers of people simply trekking north to Germany.

“It’s too easy to get into Europe,” Tusk said. “It is often said that we must be open to Syrian refugees. But these are only 30% of the inflow. Seventy percent are (economic) migrants. Also for this reason, we need more effective controls.”

Asked about Merkel’s push for other EU states to do more to take in asylum-seekers, Tusk said he could only persuade her opponents to help Germany if the EU was protecting its borders. He also questioned the view that migration pressure was too great to be stopped and could only be managed and distributed.

Eastern European countries in particular have been resistant to accepting mandatory quotas of refugees from frontline countries including Greece and Italy.

Germany has pushed for such an arrangement after it opened its doors to asylum seekers over the summer, and expects to receive as many as one million this year.

“This wave of migration is too big not to be stopped,” Tusk said, saying that even Germany could not take an endless number. 

In September, EU leaders forced through a one-off controversial deal to relocate 120,000 refugees among member states.

Tusk criticised qualified majority voting on the issue as tantamount to “political coercion”.

He added that there were “more countries sceptical towards a permanent and obligatory mechanism. And I can understand why”.

Slovakia has taken the EU to court over the decision to relocate migrants taken by majority vote.

>> Read: Slovakia takes EU to court over migrant quotas

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