BRUSSELS/THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The Netherlands floated an idea on Thursday to ferry migrants reaching Greece straight back to Turkey to stop a relentless influx into the European Union as EU officials cited a rise in the numbers of those who would not qualify for asylum.
The 28-nation bloc has all but failed to curb or control the influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, more than one million of whom arrived in Europe last year, mainly via Greece and heading towards the EU’s biggest economy, Germany.
More than 54,500 people have already reached Europe by sea this year, including 50,668 through Greece, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). [L8N15C2NQ]
They keep flowing in despite stormy winter weather making the journey ever more perilous, a fact highlighted by a UNHCR report that 235 migrants were dead or missing already in 2016. On Thursday, 24 drowned when their boat sank off a Greek island close to the Turkish coast.
Much of the EU debate on how to handle the influx has focused on distinguishing people fleeing war, and thus eligible for international protection, from “economic” migrants seeking better lives without being under immediate threat.
“Indeed we have seen that the numbers of people arriving in Europe who don’t have a genuine claim to asylum have been rising slightly,” a spokeswoman for the European Commission told a regular news briefing on Thursday.
EU nations have grown unnerved by the continent’s worst migration crisis since World War Two, one that has jeopardised the bloc’s Schengen zone of passport-free travel over national borders that has contributed greatly to its vaunted prosperity.
In the latest idea for discouraging migrants from flooding into Europe, the head of a party in the Dutch ruling coalition said it was drafting a plan under which those arriving in Greece by sea could be dispatched straight back to Turkey.
Diederik Samsom said European countries would have to agree in exchange to take several hundred thousand refugees each year out of nearly 2 million currently in Turkey. The Netherlands now holds the EU’s rotating presidency and Samsom said it would seek to push for Europe-wide agreement on the plan.
Samsom also said improving conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey meant it could soon be regarded as a safe country to which asylum-seekers could be returned.
Amnesty International quickly denounced the idea as “fundamentally flawed”, saying it would deny those arriving the right to have their asylum claims properly considered.
“Any resettlement proposal that is conditional on effectively sealing off borders and illegally pushing back tens of thousands of people while denying them access to asylum procedures is morally bankrupt,” said Amnesty’s John Dalhuisen.
“There is no excuse for breaking the law and flouting international obligations in the process.”
The government of Germany, where more than a million migrants arrived last year alone, on Thursday agreed tighter asylum rules, while Sweden and Finland said they would deport tens of thousands of last year’s asylum seekers.
In another example of how wealthy European states are seeking to deter migrants, Denmark’s parliament on Tuesday passed measures allowing the confiscation of asylum seekers’ valuables to pay for their stay, despite protests from international human rights organisations.
The European Commission said on Thursday it was looking into whether Denmark’s move was undermining fundamental EU values.
While the overall number of arrivals is relatively low compared to the EU’s 500 million population, the uneven distribution among member states has put heavy pressure on public and security services in some, as well as fuelled support for anti-foreigner nationalists and populists across the bloc.
The EU border agency Frontex said on Thursday the number of Syrians arriving on Greek islands had declined in recent months, while Iraqi arrivals had risen.
“The percentage of declared Syrians among all of the migrants landing on the Greek islands has fallen considerably in the last several months,” Frontex said, adding that some 39 percent of those arriving in Greece in December were Syrians, compared to 43 percent in November and 51 percent in October.
The shifting numbers partly reflect how registration and identification of migrants has improved in Greece over the last quarter, meaning fewer people pass under false nationality.
Syrian nationality has been a common answer to the question of origin as people fleeing the devastating civil war in the Middle East country are seen as standing the greatest chance of successful asylum applications in the EU.
Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mark Heinrich