LUXEMBOURG • European Union nations have agreed to speed up the deportation of failed asylum seekers as they took a harder line on tackling the worst migration crisis since World War II.
Interior ministers from the 28-nation bloc on Thursday endorsed a dedicated programme to send back those they described as economic migrants - who are largely from poor African nations - and not refugees from conflict-torn Middle East countries.
After months of tensions over the wave of nearly 600,000 people who have flooded into Europe this year, the EU is now taking a tougher stance by focusing on tightening border controls and reducing the incentive for people to come to the continent in the first place.
This refugee crisis will last a few years. I have no illusion that what we're experiencing now will soon belong to the past.
EUROPEAN COMMISSION CHIEF JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER, on the enormity of the problem of asylum seekers in Europe
"Those who do not require international protection must return to their countries of origin," Luxembourg minister Jean Asselborn, whose country holds the EU presidency, told reporters after the talks. Mr Asselborn later joined EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to launch talks with ministers and officials from the neighbouring Balkan countries as well as Syria's neighbours Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. These three countries host the largest numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees who are increasingly heading en masse to Europe via the east Mediterranean to Greece and up through the Balkans.
"We are in the same boat facing the same problems. We need a common approach," Ms Mogherini told a press conference. She called for increasing EU aid to the host countries around Syria as well as resettling in Europe refugees camped there. She also called for stepping up diplomacy to end the four-year war in Syria. Alluding to European wars of the 1990s, Ms Mogherini said she was speaking privately to leaders of the Balkans to try "to calm down the situation as much as possible" after tensions involving Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia erupted over the refugee flows.
Meanwhile, Serbia's President on Thursday urged the EU to keep its borders open as he began a visit to EU member Slovenia.
"The worst would be if the EU, Germany, Austria and Slovenia closed (their borders to migrants) now," Mr Tomislav Nikolic said, warning that doing so would find Serbia overwhelmed.
The crisis is also causing political problems in many EU countries where anti-immigration and eurosceptic parties are on the rise amid economic woes, as well as divisions between EU nations. But it is also raising fears that if Europe cannot protect its external borders, then its cherished passport-free Schengen zone may crumble, as member states restore controls at the old internal borders to stop migrants.
A plan for a pan-EU border guard corps with a special emphasis on helping overstretched frontline states like Greece and Italy was formally proposed by France at the talks, sources said.
The idea will now be discussed by EU leaders at a summit next week but analysts suspect some frontline states will object on the grounds of sovereignty and the right to guard their own external borders.
The Luxembourg meetings come a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande both called for an overhaul of the EU's asylum system.
During a visit to a migrant reception centre on Germany's border with Austria, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned: "This refugee crisis will last a few years. I have no illusion that what we're experiencing now will soon belong to the past."
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, REUTERS