STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AFP) — Finland joined Sweden on Thursday in announcing plans to deport tens of thousands of failed asylum seekers in a bid to contain the migrant crisis, as at least 31 more people died trying to reach the European Union.
The two Nordic countries are both struggling to cope with an influx of refugees and migrants fleeing misery in the Middle East and elsewhere — receiving among the highest numbers of arrivals per capita in the EU.
The Finnish government expects to deport around two thirds of the 32,000 asylum seekers that arrived in 2015, Paivi Nerg, administrative director of the interior ministry, told AFP.
“In principle we speak of about two-thirds, meaning approximately 65 percent of the 32,000 will get a negative decision (on their asylum applications),” he told AFP.
In neighboring Sweden, Interior Minister Anders Ygeman said Wednesday that the government is planning over several years to deport up to 80,000 people whose asylum applications are set to be rejected.
“We are talking about 60,000 people but the number could climb to 80,000,” he told Swedish media, adding that, as in Finland, the operation would require the use of specially chartered aircraft.
He estimated that Sweden would reject around half of the 163,000 asylum requests received in 2015.
Swedish Migration Minister Morgan Johansson said authorities faced a difficult task in deporting such large numbers, but insisted failed asylum seekers had to return home.
“Otherwise we would basically have free immigration and we can’t manage that,” he told news agency TT.
The clampdown came as 25 bodies, including those of 10 children, were discovered off the Greek island of Samos, in the latest tragedy to strike migrants risking the dangerous Mediterranean crossing in a bid to start new lives in Europe.
The Italian navy meanwhile said it had recovered six bodies from a sinking dinghy off Libya — and in Bulgaria, the frozen bodies of two men, believed to be migrants, were found near the border with Serbia.
Pushing back the tide
More than one million people traveled to Europe in 2015 — the majority of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — in the continent’s worst migration crisis since World War II.
Nearly 4,000 people died trying to reach Europe by sea last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.
As Europe struggles to respond to the unprecedented influx, a top Dutch politician said the Netherlands was working with some EU members on a plan to send migrants back to Turkish soil.
The proposal would see asylum granted to up to 250,000 others already hosted by Turkey, Diederik Samsom said.
But rights group Amnesty International blasted the plan, saying it was “fundamentally flawed since it would hinge on illegally returning asylum seekers and refugees.”
In Britain, the government said it would take in an unspecified number of migrant children who have been separated from their parents by conflict in Syria and elsewhere.
Officials will work with the United Nations’ UNHCR refugee agency to identify youngsters eligible to take up residence in Britain, the interior ministry announced.
Flimsy boats packed with migrants are still arriving on Greek beaches every day, undeterred by Europe’s wintry conditions.
Athens is under increasing pressure to stem the influx, with the European Commission on Wednesday saying Greece had “seriously neglected” its duty to protect the bloc’s borders.
Greece could face border controls with the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone if it does not protect the bloc’s frontiers, Brussels warned.
With the influx showing little sign of abating, many countries — including Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and France — have tightened asylum rules in a bid to discourage new arrivals.
Sweden has seen the number of new migrants entering the country plunge since it brought in systematic photo ID checks on travellers on January 4.
Concerns have grown over conditions in Sweden’s overcrowded asylum facilities, however, and officials have called for greater security after an employee at a refugee center for unaccompanied youths was stabbed to death earlier this week.
A 15-year-old boy is accused of attacking 22-year-old Alexandra Mezher at the centre in Molndal on Sweden’s west coast.
Her death has led to questions about conditions inside some centres, with too few adults and employees to care for the children, many traumatised by war.
Sweden took in around 35,400 unaccompanied minors in 2015.