Refugees wait for a police check in a tent near the central train station in Passau, southern Germany on October 8, 2015
Refugees wait for a police check in a tent near the central train station in Passau, southern Germany on October 8, 2015 © Christof Stache - AFP
Refugees wait for a police check in a tent near the central train station in Passau, southern Germany on October 8, 2015
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Marine Laouchez, AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Merkel declares EU asylum rules 'obsolete' as navies tackle smugglers

European Union nations agreed on Thursday to speed up the deportation of failed asylum seekers as they took a harder line toward tackling the worst migration crisis since World War II.

Interior ministers from the 28-nation bloc endorsed a dedicated programme to send back those they described as economic migrants -- who are largely from poor African nations -- and not refugees from conflict-torn Middle East countries.

After months of tensions over the wave of nearly 600,000 people who have flooded into Europe this year, the EU is now taking a tougher stance by focusing on tightening border controls and reducing the incentive for people to come to the continent in the first place.

"Those who do not require international protection must return to their countries of origin," Luxembourg minister Jean Asselborn, whose country holds the EU presidency, told reporters after the talks.

Asselborn later joined EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to launch talks with ministers and officials from the neighbouring Balkans countries as well as Syria's neighbours Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

These three countries host the largest numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees who are increasingly heading en masse to Europe via the east Mediterranean to Greece and up through the Balkans.

"We are in the same boat facing the same problems. We need a common approach," Mogherini told a press conference.

Mogherini called for increasing EU aid to the host countries around Syria as well as resettling in Europe refugees camped there. And she called for stepping up diplomacy to end the four-year war in Syria.

Alluding to European wars of the 1990s, Mogherini also said she is speaking privately to leaders of the Balkans to try "to calm down the situation as much as possible" after tensions involving Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia erupted over the refugee flows.

- EU border force -

Serbia's president on Thursday meanwhile urged the European Union to keep its borders open as he began a visit to EU member Slovenia.

"The worst would be if the EU, Germany, Austria and Slovenia closed (their borders to migrants) now," Tomislav Nikolic said, warning that if the bloc did stop people from entering, "Serbia... would find itself overflown".

The migration crisis is also causing political problems in many EU countries where anti-immigration and eurosceptic parties are on the rise amid economic difficulties, as well as divisions between EU nations.

But it is also raising fears that if Europe cannot protect its external borders then its cherished passport-free Schengen zone may crumble, as member states restore controls at the old internal borders to stop migrants.

A plan for a pan-EU border guard corps with a special emphasis on helping overstretched frontline states like Greece and Italy was formally proposed by France at the talks, sources said.

The idea will now be discussed by EU leaders at a summit next week but analysts suspect some frontline states will object on the grounds of sovereignty and the right to guard their own external borders.

In a sign that some had reservations, migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told Thursday's press conference that "almost everybody" agreed on the need on for "shared responsibility" for securing the external borders.

- Hotspots -

Key to efforts to deport migrants and admit genuine refugees is a proposal by the European Commission, the executive of the 28-nation EU, to set up "hotspots," or reception centres in Greece and Italy where officials separate the two categories.

However Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said the "hotspots" are far from ready, after he visited one such site in Greece.

"In terms of timing and organisation, nothing has been thought through," he said.

Avramopoulos and Asselborn will travel to the Italian island of Lampedusa on Friday to mark the opening of the first of the handful of hotspots planned for Greece and Italy.

They will also be on hand on Friday when the first refugees are moved from country to country under a new relocation scheme for 160,000 people, which EU ministers forced through last month in the face of Eastern European opposition.

The first batch consists of around 20 Eritreans who are due to be relocated to Sweden from Italy on Friday.

The Luxembourg meetings come a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande both called for an overhaul of the EU's asylum system.

During a visit to a migrant reception centre on Germany's border with Austria, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned: "This refugee crisis will last a few years. I have no illusion that what we're experiencing now will soon belong to the past."

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