EU asylum requests dipped in 2017, but Germany, Bosnia confront migrant challenges

The European Union's asylum office says the number of people applying for international protection in Europe has plunged but remains higher than before 2015, when more than one million migrants entered, many fleeing the war in Syria.

EU leaders meet June 28 in Brussels, where the issue is expected to be in the forefront

Migrants, part of a group intercepted aboard two dinghies off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, stand on a rescue boat upon arrival at the port of Malaga, Spain on June 9. The EU says applications were well of 2016 figures but still much higher than early in the decade. (Jon Nazca/Reuters)

The European Union's asylum office says the number of people applying for international protection in Europe has plunged but remains higher than before 2015, when more than one million migrants entered, many fleeing the war in Syria.

EASO said in an annual report Monday that 728,470 application requests were made for international protection in 2017, compared to almost 1.3 million applications the previous year. It says around 30 per cent of the applicants come from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

EASO says there is a still a backlog: more than 950,000 applications were still awaiting a final decision at the end of last year, almost half of them in Germany.

Over 460,000 people applied for asylum in Europe in 2013, with the uptick beginning in 2014 with 660,000 requests.

Germany has seen well over a million new arrivals since 2014, but Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing pressure over her administration's liberal approach to the issue, even from her Christian Democratic Union's main coalition partner.

Merkel said Monday that she will hold talks with other European countries on migration issues and report back to her party on July 1.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer are shown on June 13. Seehofer and the CSU are pressuring Merkel's tenuous coalition government to turn back migrants at the border very soon in the absence of a suitable strategy to deal with the influx. (Michele Tantussi/Reuters)

Merkel stressed Monday that she doesn't want to see Germany unilaterally turn back migrants at its borders, as Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has been advocating.

Seehofer's Christian Social Union party had raised the prospect of the minister taking such action in defiance of Merkel, and that has escalated the issue into a threat to her government. 

Merkel said she will hold talks at and around the June 28-29 EU summit in Brussels and report back to her own party. She said it will then have to consider what happens next.

"We wish the chancellor success in this," said Seehofer. "But we stand by our position that, if this does not succeed, turning people back immediately at the border must be possible."

The migrant issue was again an international concern last week when the rescue ship Aquarius was denied entry from the Mediterranean by Italy and Malta.

Spain's new centre-left government helped end a weeklong ordeal for 630 people rescued from the Mediterranean, and they have granted the migrants 45-day stays to sort out their legal status.

Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo told radio Cadena Ser on Monday that nearly half of the 630 migrants who arrived at Valencia on Sunday are requesting to be granted asylum in France.

She called the agreement with France "an example of co-operation" within the European Union.

Bosnia dealing with increased flow

In addition to the Mediterranean crossings that have seen Italy call on Libya and other EU nations to help stem the flow, on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea, migrants have increasingly turned to Bosnia in order to avoid more heavily guarded routes through the Balkans.

The international Red Cross said Monday that the number of people migrating through the Balkans is on the rise and they are in dire need of basic humanitarian support.

The organization said Monday that more than 5,600 migrants entering Europe through Greece have reached Bosnia and Herzegovina this year, compared to only 754 in all of 2017.

A new route in the Balkans has emerged for those seeking asylum in Europe, with makeshift camps erected in the northwestern Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa. (Google)

On Monday, border police in northwestern Bosnia stopped about 100 migrants from reaching the border with EU member Croatia.

Local media said police were trying to persuade the migrants to turn back. The group has moved toward Croatia from the nearby town of Velika Kladusa, where hundreds have been staying in makeshift camps while looking for ways to reach Western Europe.

Peter Van der Auweraert, from the International Organization for Migration, tweeted that the attempted group crossing is a "very worrying development that risks to create backlash that is not in interest of anyone."

Migrants leave a bus at a camp in Salakovac, near Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina on May 18. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

The Red Cross also said Monday that in Montenegro, 557 asylum requests were registered in May, the highest monthly figure in five years.

Simon Missiri, regional director for Europe, said his group's Balkan offices need more assistance to help cope with the increased number of migrants.

Since peaking in 2015, the migrants' use of the Balkan route toward Western Europe has been impaired in part by Hungary's construction of razor-wire fences on its southern borders.