As U.S. presidential candidates at the latest Republican debate discussed strategies to bolster border security, the European Union (EU) has been mulling plans of its own to increase border surveillance in Italy, Greece, Hungary and other member countries through which thousands of refugees enter each day.
EU officials will meet in Brussels on Thursday to discuss a proposal from the European Commission, the bloc's executive body, to deploy a new border guard force that could intervene in member countries without their consent. The commission’s proposal says the force could intervene “where deficiencies persist,” or where a country is “under significant migratory pressure putting in peril the Schengen” agreement, the pact that regulates the bloc’s treasured policy of allowing free travel between its 28 members.
One of the EU's demands is that every newcomer be fingerprinted in the country of arrival in accordance with existing EU refugee law. Implementation has slipped in the current crisis, as authorities have become increasingly overwhelmed by the number of arrivals.
Italy — one of the countries through which most of the refugees are entering Europe — needs to develop "a more solid legal framework" to allow for "the use of force for fingerprinting and to include provisions on longer term retention for those migrants that resist fingerprinting,” the European Commission said Tuesday in a statement. "The target of a 100 percent fingerprinting rate for arriving migrants needs to be achieved without delay.”
On Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the Schengen agreement should be fiercely protected by securing external borders, so that internal ones can safely remain open. Some EU lawmakers have called for stricter border protections after Hungarian officials said at least two people involved in last month’s Paris attacks that killed 130 people came to Europe by blending in with refugees.
Others have raised alarm over the mere volume of asylum-seekers, which they say are overwhelming authorities.
"We Europeans no longer have many borders. We have one and we have a shared responsibility to protect it,"Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg Wednesday.
The proposed new force, called the European Border and Coast Guard, would have more than 1,500 personnel available for deployment within three days to shore up EU borders during the current refugee crisis. "European Border and Coast Guard is not the answer to a new need,” Juncker said. “European Border and Coast Guard is there to repair a weakness of our Schengen system. We are completing what should have been done from the start."
More than 989,000 refugees and migrants entered the EU this year, fleeing violence in places including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most came in via Italy or Greece, where authorities complain that they’re overwhelmed with people seeking assistance at their borders. Thousands of undocumented refugees live in makeshift camps in Rome and other major cities without adequate access to medical care, appropriate shelter or administrative assistance.
Some Italian lawmakers have chafed at the idea of giving up a measure of sovereignty to a broader European force, and imposing force on migrants and refugees.
"That the EU legitimizes the use of force against migrants flies in the face of U.N. conventions on human rights [and] is very worrying," said Italian legislator Mario Marazziti, president of Italy's social affairs commission.
Rights advocacy groups working at the border crossings between Greece and Turkey through the Aegean Sea and Lampedusa, a tiny island near the Italian coast, have criticized the EU's approach to border security by saying they emphasize keeping more people out over securing a safe passage to Europe for refugees.
“Europe must stop shunning its responsibilities and provide safe and legal passage to people in search of safety,” said Stefano Argenziano, operations coordinator of the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), in a statement announcing the launch of MSF's sea rescue operations on the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey this month.
"It is unacceptable that the main way to access international protection in Europe involves risking one's life at sea — especially when allowing access to the EU via Turkey's land border could prevent deaths," Argenziano said. "The EU and its member states must ensure a dignified and safe reception for migrants and refugees on the land border between Turkey and Greece."
With Agence France-Presse