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EU starts to slam doors on asylum seekers

A man with a crying child shows his Greek registration paper to heavily armed Macedonian border police. Only Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis were allowed to cross the border. Dimitris Tosidis/IRIN
Two weeks have elapsed since the terrorist attacks in Paris. With the news that at least two of the attackers posed as refugees to enter Europe via Greece, a number of EU countries have taken steps to shore up their borders and restrict entry by asylum seekers, citing both security concerns and capacity problems.

Here’s a round-up of which countries have done what:

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, President François Hollande declared a state of emergency and said the country’s borders would be closed. In reality, reinstating systematic border checks on every road and railwayline that connects France with five large, neighbouring countries is not feasible. Instead, it has established checkpoints along major routes to Belgium and on some cross-border trains. France has also pushed for other member states to ramp up border controls and called for more security screening at the EU’s frontiers.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told journalists on Tuesday that, due to the security risks, “we cannot receive more refugees in Europe,” although he added that France would fulfil a pledge – made in the wake of the Paris attacks – to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement over the next two years. It’s a figure that dwarfs France’s previous commitments


Chancellor Angela Merkel has so far resisted intense internal pressure to set a limit on how many asylum seekers Germany takes in, insisting that what is needed is a permanent, mandatory system for sharing refugees more equitably across the EU’s 28 member states. Germany had already absorbed 758,500 between January and the end of October, and the state of Saxony-Anhalt is now threatening to impose its own intake limit and calling on other state governments to do the same. The country has had temporary border controls in place since mid-September in an effort to manage the seemingly endless flow of asylum seekers crossing from neighbouring Austria, having travelled through the Balkans from Greece. However, the controls mainly consist of passport and vehicle checks, and asylum seekers continue to be admitted in record numbers. Federal Police reported that 180,000 arrived in the first three weeks of November alone.


Until recently, Sweden was considered one of the most welcoming EU states for asylum seekers. Since 2013, it has offered permanent residency to all Syrian refugees who can reach the country. But, by autumn of this year, asylum seekers were arriving at a rate of 10,000 a week and officials had run out of places to house them. Earlier this month, the country introduced border checks that involved turning away asylum seekers who arrived without identification documents. The measures only slowed the rate of arrivals slightly and, on Tuesday, the government announced that it would offer only temporary asylum and residency for the next three years, with the exception of those who arrive through the EU’s relocation programme. Refugees will also face more restrictions in their right to bring family members to join them in Sweden. 

Sweden’s announcement was quickly followed by neighbouring Norway saying it would also tighten border controls. 

The Balkans and Greece

Last week, several Balkan countries abruptly imposed new border controls that amount to only admitting refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Migrants and asylum seekers from other countries, who make up about a quarter of those travelling the Balkan route from Greece to northern Europe, have been left stranded, mainly at Greece’s border with Macedonia. 

In recent days, a group of predominantly Iranian asylum seekers has gone on hunger strike to protest being denied entry into Macedonia. Several of them have also sewn their lips closed.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has warned of a “fresh humanitarian situation” developing at the Balkan border crossings and called for all nationalities to be allowed to exercise their legal right to seek asylum. 

Meanwhile, the number of migrants and refugees arriving on the Greek islands from Turkey dropped steeply over the weekend, prompting speculation that new border controls in the wake of the Paris attacks might be discouraging many refugees from attempting the journey. But, by Monday, the boats had started coming again, with an estimated 2,000 people landing in Lesvos alone, and 60 more boats arriving on Tuesday, according to news reports.

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