LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union governments agreed on Thursday to step up deportations of illegal immigrants and discussed creating an border guard force among measures to cope with a surge in refugees from Syria’s civil war.
“Increased return rates should act as a deterrent to irregular migration,” interior ministers concluded at a meeting in Luxembourg that included approving “detention” for those who may abscond before expulsion.
The agreement also spoke of exerting more “leverage” on African and other poor states, including via aid budgets, to make them accept the return of citizens refused entry to Europe.
They were joined later by EU foreign ministers and delegations from Balkan states, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon for talks on stemming migrant flows that have divided member countries over how to secure the EU’s external borders and share responsibility for housing refugees.
The EU is offering neighboring states funding to help them support Syrians and wants more cooperation to control migration.
“Returns are always tough,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters. “But ... we can only offer space and support to refugees in need of protection if those who don’t need protection don’t come or are quickly returned.”
In recent years, fewer than 40 percent of people whose asylum claims are rejected have then left the EU.
Also being discussed are closer cooperation on external frontiers, especially in the Mediterranean, from where hundreds of thousands have made their way north, prompting some countries to suspend passport-free travel inside Europe’s Schengen area.
“A Europe without secure external borders will be a Europe with internal border checks,” de Maiziere said. “We don’t want that.”
Echoing a call by President Francois Hollande on Wednesday, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve proposed beefing up the EU’s Frontex borders agency and in time establishing a full European Border Guard service with expanded powers to step in where national authorities had difficulty managing EU frontiers.
Ministers said there was broad agreement on cooperating more to help those states with external EU borders — though some also stressed the importance of preserving national sovereignty.
The meetings are part of efforts to implement a package of measures put forward by EU officials over the past six months and which have this week involved the start of negotiations with Turkey, temporary home to more than half of the four million Syrian refugees, to try and discourage people from traveling.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who angered some of her eastern neighbors over the summer by offering a welcome to more Syrians, made clear in a speech on Wednesday that Europe would also do more to deter and expel the hundreds of thousands who reach Europe every year illegally in search of prosperity.
Other elements of EU migration policy include increasing aid for refugees who stay in the Middle East and tightening procedures for identification on arrival in Italy and Greece.
One of the most divisive issues for EU states has been new programs to relocate asylum seekers from the frontline states of Italy and Greece around the bloc. Ex-communist eastern states have been vocal in rejecting immigration.
However, the first such relocation, of Eritreans heading to Sweden from Italy, is due to take place on Friday. That movement has been a key demand of Rome and Athens, who are in turn under pressure to accept EU personnel to help control their borders.
The coming months will provide a major test of how realistic EU plans are. Italy has already warned that it is not willing to host “concentration camps”. The lack of border controls between EU states presents a major challenge to the plan to direct asylum-seekers to particular parts of the bloc.
Editing by Tom Heneghan/Ruth Pitchford