Denmark, Sweden and Germany have said the passport-free Schengen zone must be preserved even as temporary border checks go up. They said the answer to the refugee crisis lies at the EU's external borders.
Denmark and Sweden have agreed to keep temporary border checks to a minimum, but Europe must first control its external borders, the EU said on Wednesday after emergency talks in Brussels.
The EU's passport-free Schengen zone is under pressure as a flood of migrants fleeing the Middle East forced Sweden this week to implement passport controls with Denmark, a move that prompted Denmark to implement random checks on its border with Germany.
"We agreed to keep (the measures) to a minimum and return to normal as soon as possible. This means the flows have to be slowed down," EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said on Wednesday after convening a meeting in Brussels between Danish, Swedish and German migration officials.
"We all agreed that Schengen and free movement must be safeguarded," Avramopoulos said.
Swedish, Danish border controls stem tide of refugees
Nearly a million refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, entered the EU last year, many after making the boat crossing from Turkey to Greece. Sweden and Germany are top destinations, straining their capacity to handle so many people.
Sweden took in 160,000 asylum requests last year, making it the highest per capita recipient. Almost 115,000 asylum seekers arrived in the last four months of the year, including 26,000 unaccompanied youths, Sweden's migration minister said after meeting in Brussels.
"That is 1,000 school classes arriving in Sweden in four months," Morgan Johansson said.
He noted that since border controls were implemented on the Oresund Bridge connecting Copenhagen and Malmo the number of migrant arrivals had dropped. Many migrants do not have passports or documents.
Since starting to conduct random ID checks on its border with Germany on Monday, Danish police said 36 of 1,366 people had been refused entry into Denmark. Denmark's border controls were triggered in response to those of Sweden and security concerns over migrants, with Denmark the transit country for those traveling towards Sweden from Germany.
In the past four months, 91,000 refugees have arrived in Denmark from Germany. Nearly 13,000 applied for asylum while the others continued to Sweden and Norway. However, with the border with Sweden effectively closed to migrants Denmark risks becoming a bigger draw as well.
Danish Immigration Minister Inger Stoejberg said "in Denmark we don't wish to be the final destination for thousands and thousands of asylum seekers."
Germany, Austria, France and non-EU member Norway, which is also in Schengen, have all implemented limited border controls to better handle the refugee flows.
German interior ministry official Ole Schroeder downplayed Denmark's border controls in seeming contradiction to earlier remarks from German officials, who said they threatened Schengen.
"What we are experiencing at the moment is no significant impairment of the border traffic," Schröder said ahead of the talks. "Denmark is doing nothing different to what Germany is carrying out at the German-Austrian border," he noted.
Solution at EU's external borders
Germany, Denmark and Sweden said the refugee issue needs to be solved at Europe's borders, a goal the EU recognizes it has so far failed to reach.
"Our problem at the moment in Europe is that we do not have a functioning border control system, especially at the Greece-Turkey border," Schroeder said.
The EU is pinning its hopes on a deal struck late last year that would see Turkey crack down on human traffickers while better integrating and providing services for refugees in exchange for nearly 3 billion euros ($3.23 billion) in aid.
The European Commission is also working towards the creation of a new Frontex force that would help Greece, but the proposed border police force is facing resistance from some EU members over provisions that would allow the body to intervene without the invitation of a member state.
A burden-sharing agreement that envisions 160,000 refugees in Italy and Greece being relocated across EU member states has barely had an impact, with only 272 people having been moved so far.
Meanwhile, of 11 planned "hotspot" screening centers in Italy and Greece only three are operational.
cw/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)