11th Dec 2023

Austria and Hungary seek EU help on human trafficking

Austria and Hungary are asking the EU to help them guard the Schengen border to the Balkans after an alleged increase in human trafficking. The issue will be discussed on Thursday (22 September) when interior ministers are likely to bin a proposal to give the EU commission a say in reimposing border checks and on enlarging the border-less zone to Bulgaria and Romania.

In a joint letter seen by EUobserver, the Austrian and Hungarian interior ministers are asking for "common action" in securing the Hungarian-Serbian border which allows traffickers to bring Arab and Asian migrants into western Europe.

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  • Switzerland was the last country to join Schengen in 2008 despite a strong No campaign in a referendum on the issue (Photo: Lars Francke)

"In Austria and in Hungary we have recently seen a significant increase in the number of interceptions of illegal migrants, most of them smuggled into the country. These people, above all citizens of Afghanistan,

Pakistan, India, Somalia, Iran and Iraq, are being smuggled into the European Union under inhuman conditions, most often in converted buses, lorries or cars," the letter reads.

Warning that the problem may worsen unless EU action is taken, the two ministers call for more co-operation among member states, the EU border agency Frontex and the bloc's police co-operation body Europol aimed at a "better protection of our external borders."

According to diplomatic sources, the number of undocumented migrants caught and arrested at the Hungarian-Serbian border - one of the "Balkan routes" used for decades by traffickers to smuggle people, weapons and drugs - has increased by 20 percent between January and August 2011 compared to the same period last year. And just in the last few weeks, over 150 arrests were made in Austria and some 200 in Hungary.

The immigration-wary government in Vienna has already sent border guards to the Hungarian border to help out the local authorities and set up a joint investigation team to combat human trafficking. Joint police teams are also deployed to the area to perform checks on highways and trains.

Frontex is also aware of the situation and "assessing" if supplementary border guards from other countries have to be sent to that area, the agency's spokeswoman Ewa Moncure told this website. "There is already a 'focal point' made out of one to two experts in the country, we'll see what more can be done in terms of operations," she said.

The Polish EU presidency has agreed to take this matter on the agenda of the interior ministers' meeting on Thursday and stresses that there is no link to the more contentious issues of Schengen reform and enlargement.

But an EU official requesting anonymity was more suspicious of the timing of this issue. "It will definitely all flow into the whole Schengen debate. These trafficking routes have been there for years, in fact the situation has improved compared to five to six years ago," the official said.

"It will just prove the need for countries to be in charge of their borders and not give any powers away to the European Commission," the source added.

The contentious issue of ceding the until now exclusively sovereign right to re-introduce border checks will most likely be "binned", another EU diplomat said.

Germany, France and Spain have publicly opposed this move by the commission, which argues that since freedom of movement is a common EU good, so moves to limit it should be decided at EU level, with approval of other member states. Under the proposal, capitals would be allowed to re-introduce checks in urgent matters only for five days, after which they would be required to ask permission from the commission and other member states.

Yet one of the measures included in the proposal - to have a more thorough monitoring of how borders are being managed - may fly, as a safeguard provision attached to the decision to let Bulgaria and Romania into the 25-strong border-free zone.

So far, the Netherlands is opposing that move, even the phased-in compromise put forward by the Polish presidency - to let Bulgarian and Romanian airports and sea ports be part of Schengen from 31 October and decide on lifting land borders next summer, after an EU report on the countries' efforts in fighting corruption and organised crime.

"At the moment, the Dutch position is almost irrational. They don't want to discuss it at all. It's a definite no for them," one EU diplomat said.

Ambassadors from the 27 member states are meeting on Wednesday ahead of the ministers' meeting and will try to iron out a compromise.

A two-phased entry combined with extra monitoring - which would however apply to all Schengen countries - may be part of the deal, if the Dutch delegation gives in, as well as possibly the Finnish one, where opposition to Schengen enlargement has also taken shape in the national parliament.

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