May 11, 2017 / 4:18 PM / in 7 months

Europe must turn back migrants on smugglers' boats: Belgian minister

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union must not accept African migrants who pay people smugglers to cross the Mediterranean, but turn them back, Belgium’s migration minister Theo Francken told Reuters on Thursday.

Belgium's Asylum and Migration State Secretary Theo Francken speaks during an interview with Reuters in Brussels, Belgium, May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Only then could the bloc open up legal pathways for refugees and migrants into Europe and fly them in under an annual cap, he said, rather than get more of the uncontrolled influx that saw 1.6 million people reach its shores in 2014-2016.

“This system is totally crazy and is not working. We have to fix this by being very clear: taking a ticket on a smuggler boat does not give you free entrance into the European continent,” said Francken, who is with the Flemish nationalist N-VA party.

“The current system is totally inhumane,” he said, adding it enriched international criminal networks dealing with people smuggling at the expense of thousands dying on the sea crossing.

Francken made clear his comments referred to all Africans - north and sub-Saharan - and to those coming in smugglers’ boats, who make up the great majority of those sailing to Europe.

Some 50,000 have made it across the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, most of them African migrants unlikely to win asylum in Europe.

As they flee acute poverty, they board flimsy smugglers’ boats in lawless Libya that are unfit for the voyage, are saved at sea by European rescue vessels, and get taken to Italy. EU laws now forbid sending them back to Libya, and repatriating those whose asylum cases fail is complicated.

Francken said Europe applies humanitarian laws too broadly and people intercepted in the Mediterranean should be turned back, or disembarked in other African states like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria.

“More legal routes, more resettlement, no problem. But it means we bring back the boats that leave illegally. It is one or the other,” he said. “It’s not about flying in real refugees and then accepting people from Nigeria and countries that have a low (asylum) recognition rate.”

“Do it for two weeks and it stops immediately. Nobody will pay thousands of euros to end up in Tunisia, Egypt or Morocco... The rumor with spread quickly that it has finished.”

Such push-backs are currently very controversial, with aid groups sounding alarm that they violate human rights by returning people who are already distressed and in dire circumstances to miserable prospects.

The outspoken Francken has often stirred controversy in Belgium, clashing repeatedly with rights groups and leftist politicians, forcing his prime minister to call him back into line.

After closing a previous route for refugees by sealing a 2016 deal with Turkey, the EU is now working with Libya to curb arrivals of African migrants.

Despite growing tensions between the EU and Turkey, Francken said he hoped the deal would hold, noting Ankara was a crucial geo-political partner for the European bloc for everything from managing migration to tackling terrorism to dealing with Syria.

KEEPING YOUR HOUSE IN ORDER

In 2016, Belgium registered 18,710 asylum applications, compared to 44,760 in 2015, data from the country’s refugee agency shows. Francken attributed the drop to the Turkey deal.

But the Tripoli government is weak and arrivals to Italy are already higher this year than at the end of May in 2016. Francken said there was no alternative to working with Libya but recognized there was no quick fix.

“The numbers will only increase this year,” he said at the outset of the new migratory season. “We will have more deaths and people drowning and many more people coming to Italy.”

Another heated discussion in the EU as it grapples with high immigration is distributing the people who are already in, with ex-communist eastern members refusing to take in asylum-seekers to ease the burden on wealthier states that mostly host them.

Germany took in most of the refugees and migrants so far, and Belgium is also among the peoples’ preferred destinations.

The migration issue has deepened divisions in the EU at a time when its unity is already damaged by Brexit and socio-economic woes.

While Francken said he was ready to give the reluctant easterners more time, he said they must show solidarity once arrivals are under control, just as the wealthier EU states provide generous development funds for the newer ones.

“Europe is a house and we are discussing to which room people entering the house have to move to. But first of all we have to talk about the front door, which is totally open now.”

“Once we have fixed it and they still do not want to do anything, then we have a huge problem. Then, for me, there have to be consequences on agriculture budgets and other things,” Francken said, stressing that was his own opinion rather than a fixed position of the Belgian government.

Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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