21st Mar 2018

Timmermans blunders on migrant figures

  • The vast majority of people arriving in the EU are fleeing conflict and war. (Photo: UNHCR/O.Laban-Mattei)

Fewer Syrians may be arriving in the EU compared to last year but a surge in Iraqis fleeing persecution casts doubt on recent statements by EU commission vice-president Frans Timmermans.

Timmermans was quoted in Dutch media as saying some 60 percent of the arrivals in December come from countries where there is no conflict.

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"More than half of the people now arriving to Europe come from countries where you can assume they have no reason to apply for refugee status. More than half, 60 percent", Timmermans told Dutch media broadcaster NOS.

However, recent figures provided by both the EU's border agency, Frontex, and the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) paint a much more nuanced picture.

Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri told this website on Wednesday (28 January) that "the trend is that there are fewer Syrian nationals".

But the Warsaw-based agency notes that while the number of Syrians may have declined, the share of Iraqi monthly arrivals in Greece "increased over the last quarter to 25 percent in December, more than double the 11 percent in October and 12 percent in November".

It also states that the average share of Afghans is between one quarter and one third of the total number of detected migrants at the border.

The UNHCR noted a similar trend.

Both the UNHCR and Frontex say Syrians accounted for around 39 percent of all arrivals in Greece in December.

Iraqis and Afghans, it says, each represent around 24 percent of the mix, or just under 50 percent together.

In other words, almost 90 percent the people who arrived by sea in the EU in December came from countries gripped by war or emerged from a wider regional conflict.

Fewer Syrians, more Iraqis

The UN agency says 42,000 Syrians arrived in Greece in December, down from 65,000 in November.

However, it also found that many more Iraqis arrived in December (27,000) than in November (18,365).

Afghans have a high chance of getting asylum in the EU while Iraqis and Syrians have more than a 75 percent chance.

Leggeri said they arrived at their data by authenticating the individual backgrounds of the nationals.

Some may claim to be Syrian but are not, he said.

If the individual is not Syrian then Frontex assumes the person is an irregular migrant, unless a background check has been performed.

"When a person is not Syrian but, for instance, from Morocco, then we assume unless there is [a reason from their] individual background, that this person is not in need of protection," he said.

Frontex says 39 percent of all migrants arriving in Greece in December declared they were from Syria. In November, it was 43 percent, compared to 51 percent in October.

'Lack of capacity'

On Tuesday, the EU Commission announced Greece had also "seriously neglected" its obligations to secure its external borders.

The assessment followed spot checks by Frontex agents in early November for gaps in the Greek border.

Authorities in Greece maintain that improvements have since been made in terms of registering and fingerprinting new arrivals since the November review.

Over 42,000 arrived on the Greek islands since the start of the year.

Leggeri said the agency was providing the Greeks with support to increase registration rates but noted there was still a "lack of capacity" and highlighted outstanding issues with Eurodac, the asylum fingerprint system.

"Frontex agency has to provide the operational solidarity bearing in the mind that in the current system member states are responsible for the management of the external border," he said.

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