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IMMIGRATION

Germany rules out closing Polish frontier to stem Belarus migrant flow

Germany has no plans to close its border to Poland despite a sharp increase in asylum seekers arriving via Belarus, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Wednesday. However, tighter border checks could still be on the horizon.

State police conduct checks at the Polish-German border
State police conduct checks at the Polish-German border. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Stefan Sauer

Seehofer told reporters the outgoing government under Chancellor Angela Merkel had “no intention” of taking such a drastic step which he said would also be “legally questionable”.

In a letter to his Polish counterpart Mariusz Kaminski seen by AFP Tuesday, Seehofer proposed increasing joint patrols along its border with Poland in response to rising numbers of migrants coming via Belarus.

Seehofer said he had not yet received a response from Warsaw but praised its “very strong initiatives” to stem the flow of new arrivals.

A powerful German police union this week called for stepped-up checks at the border given the influx via Belarus, which the interior ministry said had reached around 5,700 since the start of the year.

Seehofer repeated EU accusations that the Belarusian authorities are flying migrants from the Middle East and Africa to Minsk and then sending them into the bloc on foot in retaliation for sanctions imposed over a crackdown on the opposition.

He said Merkel would be pressing the issue at a European Union summit this week.

READ ALSO: How Germany is proposing to tighten controls on the Polish border

But he stressed “the key to the solution of the problem lies in Moscow” given Russia’s outsized economic and political influence on Belarus.

The surge in people crossing illegally over the EU’s eastern frontier with Belarus has placed major strains on member states unaccustomed to dealing with large-scale arrivals. 

Poland has drawn criticism for its hardline stance that has seen border guards push migrants back across the border with Belarus.

Seehofer said that while Berlin was concerned about the issue, it bore no comparison to the 2015-16 influx when more than one million asylum seekers arrived in Germany.

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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