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4th Dec 2021

Europe at risk of 'huge number' of returning jihadist fighters

  • Italian interior minister Alfano (c) announced the end of the Mare Nostrum sea rescue operation (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The EU is planning to step up border checks and passport controls to counter the threat of returning jihadist fighters.

“We may be faced soon with returns, huge returns from Syria and Iraq,” the EU’s counter-terrorism co-ordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, told reporters in Luxembourg on Thursday (9 October).

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He said the US-led airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) in Syria could prompt European nationals fighting alongside the jihadists to go back home.

“Airstrikes give incentive for more returns and therefore we have to be ready now to detect returns and be prepared”.

Kerchove, EU interior ministers and home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom met in Luxembourg to address the emerging security threat.

Speaking alongside Kerchove, Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano said: “The key issue is that we really need to step up border controls at our external borders.”

Initiatives include getting a controversial EU PNR (Passenger Name Records) bill in place before the end of the year.

The European Commission’s proposal for surveillance of internal EU flights has been stuck in the European Parliament for the past two years due to privacy issues.

Ministers are also interested in systematic electronic checks of documents - instead of the more standard visual checks - of EU citizens leaving and entering the passport-free Schengen zone.

The checks would link up national police databases, the Schengen Information System (an EU-wide criminal database), and Interpol resources.

Kerchove noted that some EU member states, including France, Germany, and the UK, are also drawing up legislation to confiscate returning fighters’ passports.

The border control plans are not limited to stopping the movement of fighters between the EU, Iraq, and Syria.

End of Mare Nostrum

Irregular immigration is also part of the extra security mix, with Italy's Alfano announcing the imminent end of Italy’s naval search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum.

The Mediterranean Sea operation is credited with saving almost 100,000 boat migrants' lives since the beginning of the year.

But it will be phased out entirely as the EU’s smaller Triton mission gets ready to start in November.

“We always said we would close down Mare Nostrum once Europe did its share. We now can feel Europe is doing its share,” Alfano said.

Meanwhile, an internal EU document, which outlines the ministerial conclusions to be published on Friday, urges member states to make sure irregular migrants' fingerprints “are taken on land, immediately upon apprehension”.

It calls for more bilateral co-operation with migratory transit countries in north Africa and the Middle East.

The document notes all efforts should be made to work with Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to curtail “the supply of vessels from Tunisia and Egypt”. It also proposes joint-police operations to stop human trafficking.

Refugee quotas?

Closer to home, member states are being asked to make better use of a policy that requires point-of-entry member states to take charge of asylum requests.

Those who are processed either remain in the member state of arrival or are resettled internally. Around 75 percent of all asylum seekers end up either in Italy, Sweden, Germany, UK, or France.

“There are many countries in the European Union today who receive basically no refugees or asylum seekers,” said EU commissioner for home affairs Cecilia Malmstrom.

The EU document notes that use of relocation should remain voluntary.

But the lack of solidarity from other member states has caused annoyance, with some calling upon a system of quotas.

Germany, for its part, is pushing for a quota system based on population size.

“We have to agree on the quotas, for example by population size. Then we would have to ensure that those countries that are over their quota get some relief,” said Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maizere.

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