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Ministers call for renewed migrant smuggling crackdown on "Eastern Mediterranean" route
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The EU should put a "stronger focus" on "the fight against human smuggling" along the Eastern Mediterranean route, according to the interior ministers of almost two dozen central and eastern European states, who have called for joint investigations and enhanced cooperation with Turkey and Western Balkan countries.

See: Salzburg Forum Ministerial Meeting (6-7 November 2019, Vienna) Joint Ministerial declaration (7 November 2019, pdf)

Viennese whirl

Ministers from the Salzburg Forum - a Central European security partnership with nine EU member states at its core - met on 6-7 November in Vienna, along with the "Group of Friends" of Western Balkans states and Moldova, as well as representatives from the European Commission, Europol, Frontex, the International Centre for Migration Policy Development and the Police Cooperation Convention for Southeast Europe.

Their joint declaration addressing human smuggling, borders and security says that future challenges and developments, particularly on the Eastern Mediterranean route, require a "stronger focus to be placed by the European Union on the fight against human smuggling."

The declaration calls for "swift joint measures" and, building on an agreement reached by "the Chiefs of Border Police" on 6 November, will request that the European Commission coordinate a short-term support package with Greece to "protect" the Greek EU external border, as well as targeted activities along the Mediterranean route.

Joint operational measures "will be coordinated at regular intervals and the European Commission, EU agencies and other relevant institutions will be asked for support," says the document, and they "could become a best practice model for joint efforts in the fight against human smuggling".

Ineffective and harmful

This support for new measures of coercion and control takes little account of the fact that border closures and anti-smuggling measures in the Balkans have had highly harmful and sometimes deadly effects on people on the move.

A representative of the Centre for Peace Studies in Croatia - one of the signatories to a recent letter condemning the European Commission for approving the country's accession to the Schengen area - told Statewatch that border closures "are followed by violent, illegal and forced expulsions, together with the denial of access to the asylum system."

An application is currently pending before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR, link) concerning an Afghan family who were pushed back to the Serbian border by Croatian officials. As the application states: "Near the border one of the children was hit by a train and died. They [the family] were then taken to Serbia."

Deutsche Welle has reported (link) that border restrictions and border closures introduced from 2015 onwards have had an inconclusive impact on irregular migration to and within the EU, but have been associated with more deaths en-route.

Frontex operations in the Balkans

The Salzburg Forum declaration further encourages the European Commission to conclude Status Agreements on the activities of Frontex with remaining Western Balkan states, following agreements made with Serbia (in November), Montenegro (October) and Albania (May) earlier this year.

The Status Agreements between the EU and third countries allow Frontex to coordinate and conduct joint operations on the territory of non-member states. Previously, this was limited to those states at the EU's external borders, but under the new Regulation the EU will also be able to sign Status Agreements with non-neighbouring states.

Kickstarting "a new approach towards migration"

The second section of the declaration focuses on what the ministers see as "key areas for the future of Europe" - its asylum and migration policy and the 'Dublin' regime.

The Forum sees the current systems as fundamentally unable to meet "the challenges posed by sustained mixed migration pressures… [and] the difficulties in preventing and combating illegal migration".

The Salzburg Forum ministers have identified a combination of actions outside of the EU, at the Union's external borders, and "measures on the internal aspects" as prerequisites to address this, and the group plans to draw up "possible core elements" to submit to the European Commission as it drafts proposals for a new pact on asylum and migration.

A number of "overall goals" should be taken into account in these elements, says the document, but they are riddled with caveats.

For example, the Forum argues that the provision of international protection should only be "subject to admission capacities" of the Union, and presents "breaking the business model of smugglers" as a means to eliminate "all incentives to abuse the asylum system" rather than a necessity for preventing exploitation.

Croatia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, all members of the Salzburg Forum, will be the next three presidencies of the EU Council, and commit in the Declaration to promote the Forum's interests during their presidencies.

Further reading

Ministerial statement on "migration challenges" keeps focus on control measures (Statewatch News, 5 June 2019)

Externalisation: Frontex launches first formal operation outside of the EU and deploys to Albania (Statewatch News, 22 May 2019)

Salzburg Forum: "unprecedented and uncontrolled migratory flow" must not happen again (Statewatch News, 14 November 2016)

Note: this article was edited on 5 December 2019 to include a quote from the Croatian Centre for Peace Studies.

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