By DAVID KEYTON and MONIKA SCISLOWSKA
VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Ministers from European Union nations under pressure from unauthorized border crossings asked Friday for more action to strengthen and protect the bloc’s external borders as well as for rules to return migrants to their homelands or where they started their journeys.
Interior ministers from EU countries including Greece, Poland, Italy, Austria and France — which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency — as well as nonaligned Switzerland and Norway, attended a border security conference in Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius. European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson and the heads of European security bodies like Europol and Frontex, the EU’s border agency, also joined the talks.
The ministers described the influx of migrants as dramatic and urged swift actions, including reinforcing the EU’s borders and cracking down on people smugglers to protect both EU citizens and the lives of migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia who undertake hazardous journeys to reach Europe.
“We must protect our borders from aggression, and we need to protect our people,” Johansson told more than 30 officials at the conference.
Doing that, she said, requires stopping people who are fleeing poverty and conflicts in their home countries from starting out on dangerous migration routes. But she also stressed the need for a new European system for returning migrants to their homelands if they have no permission to stay in the EU.
“We have to prevent people from departing on smuggling routes and to swiftly return people to the country of origin when they have no right to stay. We can do much more on returns if we establish a European return system. But I need your support to do that,” Johansson told the participants.
She said she will discuss the plan in more detail at a ministerial meeting in France next month.
“We can’t wait until we have desperate migrants at our borders. We need to act sooner,” Johansson said, stressing that preventative actions must respect the rights of individuals to seek asylum.
She stressed that all EU nations should “systematically check travelers against the relevant databases at entry and exit of the (bloc’s internal visa free) Schengen area,” and called for strengthening Frontex.
Notis Mitarachi, Greece’s minister of migration and asylum, which faces heavy migrant pressures on its sea borders and on its land border with Turkey, said the current system is not working.
“If people have the right to arrive in any European member state without any papers and without due process, then the whole Schengen code, the whole Schengen visa system, is meaningless,” Mitarachi said.
Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski called for amendments to EU migration laws. Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have seen a wave of migrants trying to cross illegally into the EU from Belarus, encouraged by that nation’s authoritarian president.
Poland is about to start building a tall, permanent metal wall with electronic surveillance systems along its land border with Belarus to prevent unauthorized entries.
Scislowska reported from Warsaw, Poland.
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