A majority of the illegal immigrants—most from the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan—enter into the European Union through Greece, whose northern, mountainous region of Evros is the bloc's most porous external border.
Most don't stay in Greece with its weak economy but try to travel to other countries within the EU. Under Schengen rules, once in Greece, travelers shouldn't need to show a passport to enter any of the other 25 states in the Schengen area.
Greece has been frequently criticized by the European Commission, the United Nations and nongovernment groups for not complying with international law on asylum policy and for mistreating people reaching its borders seeking protection for political, humanitarian or other grounds.
A group of seven EU countries including France and Germany said last week that further action was needed to reduce the inflows of migrants "in particular at the Greek-Turkish border." They suggested, among other things, a stronger presence for the EU border-management agency, Frontex.
With thousands of immigrants detected crossing that border every month, European officials say Greece's cash-strapped government doesn't have the money, personnel or administrative capacity to police the border.
Now, three governments are considering taking further action—effectively suspending Greece from Schengen by reintroducing passport controls for travelers arriving from the country. According to two people familiar with EU-level talks on the subject, Germany, Finland and Austria are considering this step.
A spokesman for the Austrian government confirmed this, but said he couldn't predict whether unilateral passport controls would be introduced.
A spokesman for the German government denied that Germany was proposing this. But the German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said last week: "The question still remains what happens when a country is not capable of securing its borders, as we see in Greece…Is it possible to reinstate border controls? I want to clarify that this is still part of our discussion."
The pressure on Greece comes as French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to remove his country from Schengen in a year because member states whose borders are the external barriers of the 26-nation area aren't doing a good job keeping illegal immigrants at bay. While Mr. Sarkozy's threat has been largely interpreted as an attempt to lure right-wing voters, his has been the highest-profile expression of discontent among a growing chorus.
Travelers from Greece also report there are frequent passport checks being carried out as they arrive at German airports. A senior Greek government official and an airline executive confirmed German border authorities conduct frequent ad hoc passport checks on passengers from Greece as soon as they step off the plane. The airline executive said the checks mostly happen at Munich and Frankfurt airports.
Asked to comment, Aegean Airlines, the Greek carrier that services those routes, said it hadn't received any complaints or comments to that effect from their passengers.
The German spokesman said authorities at German airports checked Schengen travelers' passports in individual cases where they had received specific information about arriving passengers and that such checks weren't at a scale that could be construed as a threat to Schengen freedom of movement.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, is pushing to have Schengen decisions made through votes among all countries affected, rather than have national governments reintroducing border controls at will.
A proposal by the European commissioner in charge of immigration, Cecilia Malstroem, in September—following the temporary re-imposition of passport checks at France's border with Italy last year to curb an influx of North African immigrants—suggested that countries could, under exceptional circumstances, waive passport-free travel for five days.
However, any extension would have to be agreed through a vote among the countries.
Commission officials have, however, expressed concern about Greece. In a confidential report last week, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, a team of experts who visited the Evros border painted a bleak picture of conditions there and called on the Greek authorities to act.
"The humanitarian situation in the Evros region…remains the most serious issue of concern," the report says and adds that a new Greek asylum service has managed to recruit only 11 people out of the 700 planned.
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