EU eyes return of borders in visa-free area

A surge in illegal migrants across the porous Greek-Turkish frontier prompted calls Thursday for a temporary return of borders in the EU?s visa-free area despite stiff opposition from Brussels.

Under proposals mulled by home affairs ministers meeting in Luxembourg, the 26 countries in the travel-free Schengen area could be allowed to restore border controls for up to a year under ?exceptional circumstances?.

Among those circumstances, according to demands made by France and Germany earlier this year, are problems related to illegal immigration.

Migration has emerged as one of Europe?s most sensitive political issues amid Europe?s sovereign debt crisis, slow growth and mounting unemployment. But going into the talks the EU?s home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said: ?We cannot accept what is on the table today.

?Hopefully (there will be) no decision,? she added.

The commissioner has repeatedly argued that Schengen was never designed to control migration but to ease freedom of movement. ?I am usually not quiet during the discussion,? she added.

The EU?s Frontex agency that mans borders said in a report that registered illegal crossings on the outer borders of the Schengen area shot up by 35 percent in 2011.

Numbers rose from 104,000 in 2010 to 141,000 the following year, largely due to flows across the Mediterranean from the Arab Spring upheavals. But the second biggest hot-spot was the border between Greece and Turkey, which saw 55,000 detections last year.

With low-cost flights to Turkey on the increase as war, chaos and poverty sends people fleeing hot-spots from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Somalia, the flow is forecast to increase.

Responding to the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, France and Germany in April sent Schengen counterparts a joint letter calling for drastic change.

But that was before the May election of socialist President Francois Hollande, who stepped into the shoes of conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

The new French Interior Minister Manuel Valls made no statement on arriving for the talks, but he is in a tight spot. Should he reject the previous goverment?s stand, his Socialist party will face the ire of the right just as the country heads into parliamentary elections June 10 and 17.

Sarkozy, chasing the far-right vote, had threatened to pull out of the Schengen zone within a year failing improved action to keep out illegal migrants.

?I?m sure France will have a constructive approach at the next interior ministers? meeting,? Malmstroem told AFP ahead of the talks.

Currently, the Schengen treaty allows renewal of border controls in the case of a terror or security threat thrown up by sports or other events.

But the draft mulled by the ministers would allow a state within the Schengen area to reimpose border controls for six months, renewable for another six ?when the control of an external border is no longer ensured due to exceptional circumstances?.

France exercised that option last year, temporarily closing its border with Italy when the Arab Spring revolts threw thousands across the Mediterranean into Italy and Greece.

The European Commission, the EU?s executive arm, has proposed however that states be enabled to close borders for five days in case of migratory pressure, but must seek permission from Brussels for longer periods. [AFP]

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