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World & Nation

‘Not Welcome’ sign: Europeans take steps to head off economic migrants

Serbia migrants

Migrants wait to be registered at a camp in Presevo in southern Serbia on Wednesday.

(Zoltan Balogh / European Pressphoto Agency)

Inundated with half a million asylum seekers already this year, Europe is sharpening its latest message to would-be new arrivals: Don’t come.

Security ministers from the European Union’s 28 countries agreed Thursday to step up deportations of people deemed to be “economic migrants” seeking a better life rather than refugees fleeing war and persecution. The ministers also decided to beef up the EU’s border agency, Frontex, and to create a dedicated deportation office within it.

The measures, along with other moves in recent days, signal Europe’s shift from merely coping with the hundreds of migrants who keep arriving on its shores daily to discouraging others who would follow in their footsteps.

Speeding up deportations “should act as a deterrent,” the security ministers said in a joint statement Thursday following a meeting in Luxembourg. Confining unsuccessful asylum applicants to detention centers until they could be shipped back to their home countries is a “legitimate measure of last resort,” the ministers added.

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“We need to see Europe upping its game,” British Home Secretary Theresa May said.

Just last month, the same group of ministers met in an emergency session to figure out how to distribute refugees equitably across Europe as the continent confronted its biggest migration crisis in more than half a century. Since then, the focus has turned markedly toward stanching the tide of arrivals, amid warnings from human rights groups against establishing “Fortress Europe.”

New arrivals of asylum seekers on Greek islands, the first port of call on an odyssey that takes most migrants to Central and Northern Europe, have gone down in recent days, in the hundreds instead of the thousands. But the decrease has been due largely to tougher weather conditions for the sea crossing from Turkey rather than European authorities’ deterrence efforts.

The EU began deploying warships and helicopters in the Mediterranean this week to patrol the crossing from North Africa to Italy, which had been the favored, if more perilous, route of migrants heading for Europe before more switched over this summer to the route from Turkey to Greece.

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Whereas the EU’s previous naval operation in the Mediterranean concentrated on reconnaissance and rescue, the new mission, Operation Sophia, authorizes the warships’ personnel to board, search and seize any vessels suspected of involvement in human smuggling.

In another militarization of European border control, the Czech Republic said it would send as many as 100 soldiers to Hungary to help that country secure its frontiers, which form part of the outer perimeter of the EU’s passport-free travel zone. Slovakia and Poland are also considering dispatching soldiers to Hungary.

The reinforcements could help Hungary guard its border with Croatia, which is a fellow member of the European Union but does not belong to the passport-free zone. While the aim would be to prevent illegal migration, it would create a highly anomalous situation in which troops from EU countries patrol a border with another EU country.

Hungary has already erected a razor-wire-topped fence along most of its border with Croatia. A similar barrier runs along nearly the entire length of Hungary’s border with Serbia, which is not an EU member.

In a scathing report this week, Amnesty International said Hungary had spent more than $110 million on ways to keep refugees and migrants out, triple the amount it spent on processing and receiving asylum seekers. The Hungarian government has also passed an aggressive new law making crossing into the country without permission a criminal offense.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe director, said Hungary had shown “blatant disregard for its human rights obligations” and called on the EU to express its censure of the government in Budapest.

The security ministers declined to do so at their meeting Thursday.

Separately, the EU allocated an additional $450 million to deal with the migrant crisis. Most of the money is to be spent on aid to the millions of Syrian refugees in countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, in hopes that improved conditions for them there will keep them from striking out for elsewhere in Europe.

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Follow @HenryHChu on Twitter for news out of Europe.

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