EU countries demand tougher migration policies after terrorist attacks by asylum seekers

Ministers are considering how they can enforce more returns

Belgium's Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib, left, Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, centre, Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, third right, and Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden at a commemoration for two Swedish soccer fans killed in a terrorist attack in Brussels. EPA
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EU interior ministers on Thursday argued for tighter immigration rules and collectively strengthening their influence on countries from which failed asylum seekers come.

The EU has struggled with the issue for years, but ministers said there was a new-found sense of urgency after recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium were both committed by failed asylum seekers with extremist views.

"There is a momentum," said Belgium's Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden as she arrived at a meeting of the bloc's 27 interior ministers in Luxembourg.

Ministers from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Sweden met at dawn to co-ordinate their position before the meeting.

Ms Verlinden called on European countries to strengthen their negotiation position regarding countries such as Tunisia, the country of origin of the suspect who shot dead two Swedish football fans on Monday.

Identified as Abdelsalam Lassoued, he was shot and killed by police after an overnight manhunt. In a video, he said he was inspired by ISIS, which later claimed responsibility for the attack.

"I don't think that any European country has enough power to negotiate with a third country. If we find out that some North African countries are not taking back their citizens, then we have an issue," Ms Verlinden said.

Swedish Minister for Justice Gunnar Strommer said that all means – "legal, diplomatic, aid, whatever" – should be used.

There has been a 20 per cent increase in returns this year, said the EU's home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, but "still more needs to be done".

"Individuals who could be a security threat to our citizens, to our union, have to be returned forcefully immediately," Ms Johansson said.

"One of the most important tools that I have and that I am using is the so-called 25A [article] in the [EU's] visa code.

"That means countries that do not co-operate sufficiently on returns then they will have less favourable situations when it comes to visas."

This has worked well with countries such as Iraq, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Senegal, according to Ms Johansson.

In an attempt to encourage countries such as Tunisia to co-operate on returns, the EU signed an agreement with Tunis this summer.

But the initiative soured after Tunisia returned aid money, describing it as charity.

Even outside the EU, the mood is shifting towards tougher policies as fears mount of further attacks due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

In the UK, conservative MP Sajid Javid on Wednesday called for visas of foreign citizens who commit acts of anti-Semitism or other hate crimes to be revoked.

The EU needs to "carefully assess all the possible consequences" of the war in the Middle East, said the Vice President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas.

This includes "the protection of our Jewish communities but also a protection against the generalised climate of Islamophobia, which has no place in our society".

Belgium has not ruled out the possibility that Lassoued was motivated by the Israel-Palestine conflict, although he also claimed to be angry at Sweden, where protests involved burning the Quran.

'Antiquated' legislation

Yet it has also emerged that legislation in place that would have allowed both France and Belgium to expel the attackers was not enforced.

In the case of Belgium, a lack of communication between Belgian agencies and also with the Swedish police, where the killer had been previously imprisoned, enabled Tunisian citizen Lassoued to stay in the country illegally.

He had been denied asylum in four EU countries, said Nicole de Moor, Belgian secretary of state for asylum and migration.

In France, Mohammed Mogouchkov, 20, is believed to have killed schoolteacher Dominique Bernard on October 13 in a knife attack in the northern city of Arras.

Born in Ingushetia, Mogouchkov arrived on French territory when he was five years old. The killing of Bernard was similar to that of Samuel Paty, which shocked the country in 2020.

Media reports suggest that Mogouchkov was already on the police's radar for extremist views. His asylum renewal request was twice rejected.

His brother, Movsar, was sentenced in April to five years in prison for association with a terrorist group and again three months later for apology of terrorism, according to daily Le Monde.

His father Yacoub was expelled by Belgium to Russia in 2018.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said that Mogouchkov could not have been sent back to Russia because legislation protects asylum seekers who arrived on French territory before age 13.

Yet Le Monde has found that there are exceptions in the law in the case of "behaviour likely to harm the fundamental interests of the state, or linked to terrorist activities or constituting acts of explicit and deliberate provocation to discrimination, hatred or violence".

It is not clear why this was not applied to Mogouchkov, who was on France's notorious "S-list", which indicates that a person might pose a threat to national security.

Whatever the reason, the consensus in Luxembourg was that laws need to be changed.

EU rules to return failed asylum seekers are antiquated and need to be updated, Mr Schinas said.

More leeway for security services

Like several other officials, he called on the EU to finalise its migration and asylum pact that has been under negotiation for three years.

On Wednesday, Mr Schinas highlighted that all aspects of the deal have been finalised except for a return directive, which is still waiting for a position from Parliament.

Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik, who is the rapporteur for the legislation, told Politico's newsletter Playbook that such criticism was unfair.

"Member states could use the existing Returns Directive from 2008 much more effectively,” she said.

Mr Darmanin said that the migration pact needed to be applied as soon as possible "to control our borders, register people, and conduct security interviews that come before any asylum request".

He pushed to give security services more access to encrypted messages, which he claimed were often used before terrorist attacks.

His call was echoed by Belgium, with Ms Verlinden saying that the situation had changed compared with the last wave of terrorist attacks in Europe almost a decade ago.

"It's sometimes harder to find lone actors, sometimes youngsters ... who radicalise very quickly," she said.

"Unfortunately, victims died on our streets in Brussels, victims who were just in Belgium for a happy evening watching a soccer game," she said.

She added that EU leaders "must make sure that we do everything we can, with a balance of security and privacy, everything we can to avoid that any incident of this kind will happen again".

Updated: October 19, 2023, 9:12 PM