Germany’s interior minister said on Thursday that he could see no end to the temporary border checks with Austria to regulate the flow of asylum seekers, delivering a further blow to Europe’s passport-free zone.
Thomas de Maiziere suggested Germany could extend the controls, first introduced in September as the migrant crisis worsened, for up to two years – the maximum that is allowed under the
Schengen agreement – and a move that could permanently fracture the EU’s open-border policy.
“I don’t foresee a moment when we can end it,” Mr de Maiziere said of the border controls, as a new surge of migrants is expected to enter Europe through Turkey and Greece in the next few weeks.
Twelve migrants drowned on Thursday after a boat taking them to the Greek islands capsized in rough weather.
Austria said on Wednesday it would cap the number of refugees it will let in at 37,500 this year and tighten border controls, upping the pressure on Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to limit the number of new arrivals coming to Germany.
Mrs Merkel has criticised the measure as “not helpful”.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, warned at Davos that the EU has “six to eight weeks” to save the Schengen system as he called for the immediate implementation of the deal between the EU and Turkey over controlling the flow of migrants.
Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, said the refugee crisis and security challenge in Europe posed existential threats.
“The European project can die, not in decades or years but very fast, if we are unable to face up to the security challenge,” he said.
Turkey, which is home to some 2.2 million refugees from Syria’s civil war, has become a hub for migrants seeking to reach Europe, many of whom pay people smugglers thousands of dollars for the risky crossing.
Ankara reached an agreement with the EU in November to stem the flow of refugees heading to Europe, in return for financial assistance.
Brussels vowed to provide three billion euros as well as political concessions to Ankara in return for its cooperation in tackling Europe’s worst migrant crisis since the Second World War.
But the onset of winter and rougher sea conditions do not appear to have deterred the migrants, with boats still arriving on the Greek islands daily.
Controversy was growing on Thursday over moves by European countries to seize jewellery and other valuables from asylum seekers to pay for the cost of their stay.
The United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday spoke out against a proposed new law in Denmark that will allow refugees’ property to be confiscated.
But it has emerged that police in Germany are already routinely seizing cash and jewellery from asylum seekers as they enter the country.