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Greece pressed to improve Schengen checks

"Serious deficiencies" in Greece's border controls must be fixed in three months, says the European Commission. It's warned Athens that it risks exclusion from Europe's Schengen zone.

Greece, the main conduit from Turkey for refugees, was told on Wednesday by the EU executive that it had failed to sufficiently register and fingerprint migrants fleeing warzones such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Greece had "seriously neglected" in obligations to uphold Schengen treaty checks along its maritime and land border, which form part of the EU's external frontier, said Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovski.

He warned that a draft report of an evaluation made by an EU mission in November, if adopted by a majority of the EU's 28 members states, could result in Greeks losing their

passport-free access to the much of Europe.

Dombrovski's remarks at a news briefing in Brussels followed a migration crisis meeting of EU interior ministers in Amsterdam on Tuesday.

Help us, urges Greek minister

Greek deputy migration minister Ioannis Mouzalas told Greek Skai television that Athens had faced delays and needed extra help in setting up island screening centers - hotspots supervised by the EU.

He reiterated Athen's demand that Ankara foil people smugglers operating along Turkey's Aegean Sea coastline.

Ineligible migrants arriving on chartered boats from Turkey could be sent back "the next morning," he said, adding that heightened checks would make it harder for new arrivals to continue on to northern Europe.

Last year, some one million reached Europe, and headed mainly toward Austria, Germany and Scandinavia.

Greek government spokeswoman Olga Gerovassili said a request from Athens for support from the EU border patrol agency Frontex had only been partially met.

"We think that trying to isolate Greece is not constructive," she said.

The bodies of seven drowned migrants, including two children, were found on Wednesday after their boat sank off the Greek island of Kos.

A female survivor was in hospital in critical condition. A man had swum ashore to raise the alarm.

The Greek coast guard said a rescue effort was made by its vessels, those of Frontex, and by Greek rescue volunteers.

Schengen spans 26 nations

Schengen - now spanning 26 countries, but not all of them EU members - began in 1985, designed to embody Europe's goal of hassle-free continental travel and movement of goods.

Dombovski told a Brussels briefing on Wednesday that the Commission was

intent on preserving Schengen.

Athens had "started to work toward complying with the Schengen rules," he said, "but more needs to be done."

In practice, Greece has no immediate land link with other eastern Schengen nations such Slovenia and Hungary. Balkan aspirants such as Serbia and Macedonia form a non-Schengen buffer.

But, should the EU decide to penalize tourism-dependent Greece, its citizens would face checks on air and sea ports of other Schengen members.

Under Article 26 of the Schengen code, Brussels can authorize zone members to extend temporary border controls within the Schengen zone for up to two years, instead of the usual six months.

To handle Europe's refugee crisis, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, France and non-EU member Norway have already used that six-month provision for checks in recent months.

In January alone, more than 46,000 people arrived in Greece, according to the United Nations.

Greek bailout separate issue, says Dombrovski

Dombrovski insisted that Brussels would not link Athens' alleged migration failings with another major issue, last year's 86 billion-euro ($94 billion) bailout of Greece after the country came close to a eurozone exit.

Greece is also facing further scrutiny of its budgetary efforts as part of the terms set in exchange for the further emergency loans.

ipj/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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