June 15, 2015 / 2:23 PM / 2 years ago

Send more migrants home to make room for refugees: EU official

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission is urging EU governments to send back migrants who cannot claim asylum, taking a tougher line to convince reluctant countries to receive new refugees fleeing Syria and Eritrea.

Before an EU meeting in Luxembourg, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner in charge of migration, wrote to EU ministers to call for the EU’s so-called return policy to be stepped up, in a letter seen by Reuters.

Only 39 percent of migrants who were not granted asylum in the EU were returned to their home countries in 2014.

Avramopoulos said sending those home who were simply seeking a better life and did not merit asylum would serve as a deterrent to people trying to cross the Mediterranean. A more effective policy of returning those people would also help maintain public support for protecting people most in need.

Following the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean this year, EU governments have promised to act, but at a time of rising anti-immigrant sentiment and government spending cuts, they are divided over their emergency response.

The Commission wants EU governments to agree to resettle 24,000 asylum-seekers from Italy and 16,000 from Greece over the next two years, as well as accepting more migrants overall.

Only refugees from states deemed by the EU to be known to be facing the worst strife will be taken in, meaning to date Syrians and Eritreans.

Eastern European governments say they are already taking in refugees from the crisis in Ukraine. Britain, which is opting out of the plan, wants a stronger focus on people traffickers.

The recent decision by France and Austria to increase checks at their borders with Italy to prevent migrants from crossing has further soured relations, as the measures go against the spirit of Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.

Italy says its European partners are shirking their responsibilities and leaving southern Mediterranean countries to handle the migrant emergency without effective support.

In Luxembourg, EU home affairs and justice ministers will discuss the Commission’s latest proposal, while the EU executive will also discuss the Schengen border issue in a closed-door meeting with the Italian, French and German ministers.

Avramopoulos called for changing the mandate of the EU border protection agency, Frontex, to allow it to carry out deportation missions on its own initiative and to support a single EU government to do so. At the moment, Frontex can only coordinate operations involving several EU countries.

Editing by Robin Emmott and Dominic Evans

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