EU interior ministers met in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Friday to plan action to strengthen and protect the European Union's external borders, as well as rules for returning migrants to their homelands. The EU has seen an increase in irregular border crossings into the bloc and building controversy over the practice of "pushbacks."
Ministers agreed that urgent action was needed. Steps discussed included beefing up the bloc's external borders and going after human traffickers.
Better to stop migrants to EU at home or at the border?
"We must protect our borders from aggression and we need to protect our people," European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said. She argued that the best start would be to keep migrants from embarking on dangerous journeys to Europe in the first place, but also noted the need for a new EU system to return people who illegally enter the bloc.
"We have to prevent people from departing on smuggling routes and to swiftly return people to the country of origin when they have no right to stay. We can do much more on returns if we establish a European return system. But I need your support to do that," Johansson said.
While emphasizing the need to respect a person's right to asylum, Johansson made the case for preventive action: "We can't wait until we have desperate migrants at our borders. We need to act sooner."
The meeting was attended by ministers from EU member states Austria, France, Greece, Italy and Poland, as well as from Norway and Switzerland, along with the heads of the European Union's border patrol agency, Frontex, and security organization, Europol.
What was said about 'clearly illegal' pushbacks?
Johansson also addressed the issue of people being forced back across borders.
"Pushbacks are clearly illegal. People have the right to apply for asylum," she said.
The practice has been widely criticized, yet individual countries have defended it, most recently in the face of thousands of Middle Eastern and Central Asian migrants who have been lured to the EU's exterior borders in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in retaliation for EU sanctions against him.
In Lithuania alone, nearly 8,200 people have been denied entry. Eastern members of the EU have sought funding from the bloc to finance barriers they are building along their borders with Belarus. Poland, for instance, is about to begin construction on a tall, permanent metal wall equipped with electronic surveillance systems along its border with Belarus.
Johansson balked at the idea, saying: "If member states would like to build fences, they can do so, but it is a longstanding position from the Commission not to finance walls or barbed-wire fences."
Is Schengen meaningless?
Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite called on the EU to find common ground on migration. "If we want to defend effectively, we must all agree on a new standard for the protection of external borders."
Greek Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi, whose country has struggled to deal with an influx of migrant arrivals both at sea and by land, said the current system was not working.
"If people have the right to arrive in any European member state without any papers and without due process, then the whole Schengen code, the whole Schengen visa system, is meaningless," Mitarachi said.
The Schengen Agreement abolished passport and visa checks at borders between many European countries.
Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri summed up the crux of the problem currently facing the bloc when it comes to ongoing illegal migration:
"Clarification (is needed) how to strike the balance between prohibiting illegal crossing while maintaining access to international protection for those who are in need," he said. "These are the key principles to combine."
js/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)