Austria, Bulgaria Send Troops to Borders with Italy, Turkey to Try to Stop Migrant Influx

Austria, Bulgaria Send Troops to Borders with Italy, Turkey to Try to Stop Migrant Influx

Austria has reintroduced border controls at the Brenner Pass, on the Italian-Austrian border, Photo: TeaMeister, Flickr

Austria has fulfilled its threats to send soldiers to the border Brenner Pass to stop migrants from coming from Italy, while another EU member Bulgaria is deploying military force on its border with Turkey for the same reason.

A major intra-EU diplomatic conflict erupted in early July as Austria’s government threatened to send its army to blockade its border with Italy at the Brenner Pass over the massive influx of migrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Austria’s threat came after the Italian government itself threatened to close off its ports to vessels bringing in illegal immigrants from across the Mediterranean.

Almost 85,000 illegal immigrants landed in Italy in the first half of 2017, a 20%  increase year-on-year.

Counting migrants who made it to other EU countries through the Mediterranean, their total number climbed to 101,000 over the first six months of 2017.

Some 2,247 illegal immigrants have died or are missing in the Mediterranean as they have been trying to make the journey from Libya to Italy, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

The shortest crossing from Libya to Italy is only about 460km (290 miles). Italy has seen more than 500,000 migrants arrive by boat since 2014. Libya has been in shambles since its long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled, and killed by a mob in October 2011.

A growing number of migrants are also migrating from Africa vie the Mediterranean to Spain.

In addition to the Mediterranean route, a large number of illegal immigrants arrive into the EU by land, through the so called Balkan Route from Turkey via Greece or Bulgaria to Hungary and Central Europe.

Austria’s government announced it would deploy 70 soldiers, but no armored vehicles, to the Brenner Pass at the border with Italy on Thursday, EU Observer reported.

It said between 700 and 1,000 migrants were entering the country from Italy each month, many of them on freight trains.

“It’s important not only to prevent illegal migration but, above all, to save human lives,” Helmut Tomac, an Austrian police chief, said on Wednesday, citing the fact that two migrants were found dead on a goods train last year.

Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Sweden have been given permission by the European Commission to impose temporary border checks despite being part of Schengen Area, the passport-free travel zone in Europe.

The military deployment is part of a wider EU migrant crackdown, including on its external borders.

EU Observer points out that almost 96,500 people came to Italy by crossing the central Mediterranean from January 1 until August 6, according to the International Organisztion for Migration (IOM), an international body based in Geneva.

Some 11,700 came to Greece via the Eastern Mediterranean and 8,200 came to Spain. The Greek route had been the main one, with 161,000 people last year.

But this was all-but closed by an EU deal with Turkey to stop people from sailing to Greek islands, creating extra pressure on Italy and Spain.

Italy saw 100,000 arrivals in the January to August period last year. The 2017 figure would have been higher, but a deal with Libya to stop migrants in Libyan waters and to chase away NGO rescue boats led to a recent drop-off in numbers.

The Spanish figure for this year is already three times higher than for last year. Romania has also recorded a five-fold increase in irregular crossings compared to last year.

It caught more than 1,400 people trying to sneak into the country in the first half of this year, including a boat carrying 69 Iraqi migrants in the Black Sea last weekend.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov said on Thursday that the government would send 600 soldiers to stop people crossing into the EU from Turkey.

Karakachanov told German newspaper Die Welt that “highly specialised combat groups” would be included.

“We cannot allow illegal migrants to come to Europe in large numbers,” Bulgaria’s Defense Minister said.

“We should deploy NATO or EU forces in Italy and Greece and defend the external borders of the European Union by force of arms,” he argued, criticizing the inability of the EU to close the Mediterranean route for illegal immigration.

In his words, the overwhelming majority of the people trying to reach Europe through the Mediterranean are economic migrants.

“They don’t seek protection of their life, they just wish to live in the rich West,” Karakachanov commented.

While an EU member state, however, unlike fellow-EU member state, Bulgaria is not a member of the borderless Schengen Area yet.

The Austrian military action is said to have highlighted the lack of solidarity on immigration in the EU

Local authorities in north-west Italy said the military deployment was “surprising and unjustified”.

Italian leader Paolo Gentiloni also urged the European Commission in a letter this week to mobilise “a greater European effort to face the migrant phenomenon, which has a structural dimension and concerns the entire European Union”.

EU states had agreed to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece over a two-year period but only 20,000 have been relocated so far.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have boycotted the scheme, prompting legal action by the Commission.

Austria and Bulgaria did not publicly boycott the quotas, but did so in effect, EU Observer notes. Austria, which was due to take 1,953 people, has taken in no one, while Bulgaria, which was due to take 1,302 people, took just 50 from Greece.

France and Germany, which have complained about the EU quota rebels, have also fallen far short of their commitments.

Germany was due to take 27,536 people, but took about 7,000. The French quota was 19,714, but France took about 4,000 people.