Fresh bid to save free travel area in Europe

Fresh efforts to save the EU’s free travel area got broad support from EU leaders, with the possibility that Ireland could play a greater role in the future.
Fresh bid to save free travel area in Europe

Even a proposal from the European Commission made during the week to establish a permanent border and coastguard service was well received.

With the numbers crossing the Mediterranean and the Aegean to reach the EU decreasing by the day as the weather turns bad, many countries are no longer feeling as much pressure.

But the emphasis on fortifying the EU’s borders against refugees drew a withering response from Medecins Sans Frontiers, who on Wednesday rescued 85 people from a boat off the Greek island of Lesbos. At least two drowned, including an 80-year-old man and a nine-month-old child.

Aurelie Ponthieu, MSF humanitarian adviser on displacement, said what was needed was a safe passage at the land border between Turkey and Greece, and a real search and rescue operation.

“It seems that EU and Greek authorities prefer to keep observing the scene from the distance rather than provide concrete solutions to these tragedies,” she said.

The EU leaders, however, agreed to return to the issues in February when they meet again in Brussels.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said “the status quo cannot continue” with the extent of refugees moving into Europe from African countries and Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Council president Donald Tusk, who chaired the summit, said while they had crafted a comprehensive strategy to deal with the refugee crisis, implementation was lagging.

“We need to speed up on all fronts, including the protection of the EU’s external borders. Our goal is clear: we must regain control over our external borders to stem migratory flows and to preserve Schengen,” he told them.

One of the big issues is the fact that only a fifth of refugees coming into the EU through Greece and Italy have been registered.

Part of the problem has been that both countries did not have the facilities or the desire to retain them and refugees wanted to move mainly to Germany.

Plans to establish hotspots — areas where refugees are detained while they are registered and fingerprinted and kept to be returned when their applications for asylum fail — have been delayed, with just two in Italy and one in Greece beginning to operate.

Plans to relocate 120,000 from both countries over two years to other EU countries have not worked out so far, with little more than 160 transferred since September.

Ireland has agreed to take 2,600 refugees but there have been delays because of people preferring to go to Germany or Sweden. The first Syrian family is due to arrive in the new year.

The commission published proposals to transform Frontex, a skeleton border force totally reliant on the member states to contribute people and equipment for specific missions, into a fully fledged border and coastguard.

Europe Minister Dara Murphy said future co-operation with the new agency would be debated.

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