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Ukrainians move closer to visa-free EU travel

Visa-free travel in Europe for Ukrainians with biometric passports has been proposed by the EU migration commissioner. Dimitris Avramopoulos said Ukraine had met all EU benchmarks. Turkey had only 10 days to do so.

Ukrainians are to be allowed short stays of up to 90 days within Europe's Schengen zone under the proposal to be submitted EU interior ministers in Luxembourg on Thursday and later to the European Parliament.

Excluded would be travel to Ireland and Britain. Ukrainians would, however, also have visa-free access to four Schengen associated countries - Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

Provided they had sufficient funds, Ukrainians could visit for 90 days of a 180-day period for business, tourist or family purposes.

'Security union' tag for EU

The recommendation on Ukraine came from Avrapoulos (pictured) at the close of a press conference in Brussels, where he said Europe should work toward a "security union" to better coordinate anti-terrorism practices and refugee arrivals.

His remarks coincided with data from Eurostat, the EU statistics bureau in Luxembourg, showing that EU nations had recognized 333,350 asylum applicants as people needing protection last year.

Year-on-year, that was a 72 percent increase. Germany recognized 148,200 persons, followed by Sweden with 34,500 and Italy with 29,600.

Syrians made up 50 percent of those accepted EU-wide, followed by Eritreans, who were 8 percent, and Iraqis, with 7 percent.

EU praises Ukraine

Avramopoulos said Ukraine had met "all the benchmarks" set out in a Visa Liberalization Action Plan (VLAP) worked through by Ukraine and the EU since 2008 - as part of the EU's

Eastern Partnership, which has riled Russia.

The VLAP's four key tests include document security, integrated border management, migration management and upholding public order and fundamental rights.

The commission had scrutinized five progress reports before

finalizing the plan in December.

Turkey prompted

Turkey has until the end of April to fulfill "remaining benchmarks," Avramopoulos said, referring to

Ankara's long-standing demand

that its citizens be granted visa-free travel by the EU.

The demand was included in the March 18 deal with EU heads of state on deportation of of refugees stuck in Greece. The deal is meant to dissuade others in Turkey from crossing the Aegean.

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"No visa liberalization can be offered if not all the benchmarks are met," Avramopoulos said, referring to the tight time frame, which could see visa requirements for Turkish citizens lifted by the end of June.

People smugglers 'hit'

Avramopoulos, Greece's former foreign minister, said the activities of people smugglers had been "hit" in recent weeks because of "substantial support" provided to Greek authorities by the EU's asylum and frontier-policing agencies, EASO and FRONTEX, respectively.

"We have already seen a sharp drop in the number of people crossing irregularly the Aegean from Turkey into Greece," Avramopoulos said.

The number of refugees distributed from Greece to other EU nations, opposed by members such as Poland and Hungary, would needed to climb to an average of 6,000 per month, Avramopoulos added.

"Around 70 percent of the more than 50,000 people currently in Greece are eligible for relocation," Avramopoulos said, adding that on Wednesday 56 were relocated to France and 42 to the Netherlands.

Eurostat named the EU nations that took in the least people last year - fewer than 100 - as Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia.

From outside the EU, for instance, in refugee camps near Syria, more than 8,000 refugees had directly resettled, mainly to Britain, Sweden and Finland.

ipj/rc (AFP, dpa)

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