People smugglers are turning the European Union’s south-east frontiers into a hotspot for illegal migration, the EU’s security chief has warned.
Franco Frattini, EU justice and security commissioner, said growing numbers of illegal migrants were arriving via the western Balkans or the Black Sea region from Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.
The Mediterranean is the most visible route for unlawful entry to the union, with thousands of Africans undertaking risky sea crossings each year in an attempt to reach southern Europe.
But Mr Frattini warned that undocumented entry through the east was a further worry. “The illegal migrants coming from the east are very often victims of sexual exploitation, trafficking and forced labour,” he told the Financial Times.
His comments highlight the challenge confronting the EU over migration, with a fractious debate about whether it can manage entry while also filling labour market gaps. About 500,000 undocumented migrants are thought to arrive each year.
Mr Frattini pledged to try to bolster security in the western Balkans through a deal to make it easier to receive EU work visas and measures to allow for repatriation of illegal migrants. An accord should be concluded by the year end.
The move aims to spur documented entry, encourage reform to fight organised crime and strengthen borders. Brussels said the union would only move towards a visa-free regime if the western Balkans acted against trafficking.
At the same time, Mr Frattini will explore opening channels for legal entry from African nations from which people travel to the EU in the hope of finding work.
For example, the EU could offer to make it easier for students from Morocco and Tunisia to receive visas. This and other sweeteners would be offered in return for a reciprocal deal to allow the EU to repatriate illegal migrants.
The EU has yet to forge such a “return” pact with an African nation to take back citizens who are illegally in the 27-country bloc, the European Commission said.
Mr Frattini said: “There is a very reluctant stance by African countries taken vis-à-vis Europe. I can understand perfectly. They have to show their public that the rich Europe does not want only security, only protection. But we are ready to offer something. Legal migration, for example, or visa facilitation for students.”
The EU’s fledgling border control agency, Frontex, is running operations in southern coastal waters this summer as part of efforts to control migration from Africa.
Mr Frattini said the patrols were having an effect, despite some member states failing to meet commitments to provide equipment. The operations were likely to become permanent there, he added.
Since Frontex missions began in the Mediterranean in June, flows of illegal migrants had dropped by 40 per cent. People smugglers were worried about the agency’s patrols, he said.
But critics question whether the operations simply push would-be entrants to try other routes. They also say that on the patrol near Malta, anyone rescued by Frontex would be taken to Europe for humanitarian reasons in any case.