Avramopoulos oversees first relocation of asylum seekers

Dimitris Avramopoulos arrives in Italy [Commission]

Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos will travel to Italy today (9 October), to oversee the first-ever relocation of asylum-seekers, from Lampedusa to Sweden, where they will have their asylum applications processed.

Together with Luxembourg Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean Asselborn, Avramopoulos will meet Italy’s Minister of the Interior, Angelino Alfano, in order to review the situation on the ground and to focus on the implementation of the relocation initiative. Luxembourg is assuming the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.

They will then travel to Lampedusa, in order to visit the First Reception Centre for migrants, one of four operational “hotspots” in Italy. Asselborn and Avramopoulos will also meet 21 refugees, reportedly Eritreans.

The relocation initiative foresees that a total of 160,000 asylum seekers would be relocated from Italy, Greece and Hungary, to other EU countries over two years.

>>Read: EU backs refugee plan in teeth of east European opposition

On 10 October, Avramopoulos and Asselborn will visit Greece, where they will meet with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

European Union governments agreed on Thursday (8 October) to step up deportations of illegal immigrants and discussed creating an EU border force, among other measures to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria’s civil war.

Underlining the havoc brought by chaotic mass treks across Europe’s open borders over recent months, the German state of Bavaria threatened to break ranks with Berlin and send migrants back to Austria who cross its Alpine frontier.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose welcome for refugees has taken a toll on her ratings, insists she will not shut the door. Her deputy said there could be no pulling up of “drawbridges”. Austria’s interior minister warned of possible border “riots”.

The dispute between Vienna and one of Germany’s richest regions, which says over 200,000 migrants entered from Austria in a month, helps explain Merkel’s vocal support this week for the expulsion of those not fleeing for their lives, and for tighter controls on who enters Europe across the Mediterranean.

A policy document approved by EU interior ministers meeting in Luxembourg called on states to ensure more of those ordered to leave should actually go. Some 470,000 expulsion orders were made last year but fewer than 40% of them were enforced.

Ministers declined to put figures on future deportations.

“Increased return rates should act as a deterrent to irregular migration,” read the conclusions, which also included approval of detention for those who may abscond before expulsion and called for more “leverage” to be exercised on African and other poor states, including via aid budgets, to make them accept the return of citizens refused entry to Europe.

>>Read: Visegrad countries trigger crisis ahead of EU refugee summit

“Returns are always tough,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told reporters. “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.”

Neighbours invited

Later, interior ministers were joined by foreign ministers from the EU, Balkan states, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to review broader efforts to stem the flow of refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East, through Greece and the Balkans.

“It’s joining forces to tackle an issue that is going to be very difficult to solve,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini of a meeting that produced a declaration pledging more EU aid for neighbouring states to help cope with refugees.

Attendees also agreed to work to end the war in Syria and stabilise Iraq and Afghanistan, and to step up expulsions and aid programmes to persuade economic migrants to go home.

Echoing a call by President François Hollande on Wednesday (7 October), French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve proposed beefing up the EU’s Frontex borders agency and, in time, establishing a European Border Guard service with expanded powers to step in where national authorities had difficulty managing EU frontiers.

Ministers said there was broad agreement – though some also stressed the importance of preserving national sovereignty, a particular concern for those on the Mediterranean frontline.

“A Europe without secure external borders will be a Europe with internal border checks,” said de Maizière, referring to the kind of row that has since Hungary line its frontiers with razor wire and EU allies start police checks on cross-border traffic.

Visiting an asylum centre in Bavaria, Jean-Claude Juncker warned that 25 million were on the move in regions not far from Europe, more than the continent could cope with. But the answer, he said, was not Cold War-style fortification: “We had a Wall in Europe long enough,” he said. “And we certainly don’t need any between member states of the European Union.”

Subscribe to our newsletters