Sunday 4 December 2016

Portrait of the Week - Number of refugees coming to Europe soars by 80pc

Denmark struggles with illegal migrants and smugglers, US and Cuba set to restore diplomatic relations, and Colombia makes use of the lie dectector

Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30

WAITING TO CROSS: A migrant couple sleep near the police station in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia. Illegal immigrants cross Serbia on their way to other European countries as it has land access to three members of the 28-nation bloc — Romania, Hungary and Croatia. Photo: Getty
WAITING TO CROSS: A migrant couple sleep near the police station in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia. Illegal immigrants cross Serbia on their way to other European countries as it has land access to three members of the 28-nation bloc — Romania, Hungary and Croatia. Photo: Getty

Denmark will impose controls on its border to stop smugglers and illegal migrants, its new foreign minister has said, in a move likely to worry the European Union but please a right-wing party on whose support the government now depends.

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More police, machines screening number plates and other measures would increase security without breaking EU rules guaranteeing freedom of movement through the bloc, Kristian Jensen said.

The EU is grappling with an unprecedented flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, which is testing its asylum rules and the Schengen agreement - its core agreement on unrestricted travel.

Anti-immigration parties have shown signs of gaining support across the continent, and Hungary last week said it would fence off its border with Serbia, drawing EU criticism.

The EU Commission said it would not comment on the Danish plan until it saw details, but it complained when Denmark briefly started checking cars at the border in 2011.

More than 135,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe by sea in the first half of 2015, with most of the burden being borne by countries in southern Europe, according to a new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Desperate people resort to desperate measures and unfortunately . . . the numbers are expected to continue to soar," said Brian Hansford, a spokesperson for UNHCR.

The number of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe in the first six months of 2015 increased more than 80pc from the same time period in 2014, the UNHCR report said.

It comes as European Union leaders remain divided over how best to solve the growing migrant crisis.

The increase in refugees and migrants, many braving Mediterranean waters in unsafe boats, has hit countries in southern Europe particularly hard, the report said.

Denmark's newly elected government plans to halve the benefits refugees receive from the state in an effort to slow the flow of asylum seekers into the country, a minister said on Friday.

Tapping into a debate that has exposed deep divisions among EU states over how to respond to an unprecedented influx of migrants, Minister of Integration Inger Stojberg said there was no doubt Denmark should help those in need.

But if new arrivals were too numerous, integrating them would not be possible. "It is a matter of slowing down the flow of asylum seekers . . . We need to be able to keep up."

On Monday, two Australian media organisations reported that Australian politics has been infiltrated at high levels by the Italian mafia, although there was no suggestion of direct links between lawmakers and the criminal syndicate.

A year-long investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Fairfax media found one element of the Calabrian mafia, known as 'Ndrangheta', had used a number of well-known donors to parties on both sides of the Australian political divide to legitimise its activities.

The report said a man with "deep mafia associations" met then prime minister John Howard and other top party officials at a fundraising event for the conservative Liberal Party in the early 2000s.

There was no suggestion that Mr Howard knew of the man's alleged criminal links.

In another incident, the son of an alleged mafia boss did work experience at the Australian embassy in Rome while former Liberal minister Amanda Vanstone was ambassador, it said. Again, there was no suggestion Ms Vanstone knew of the link.

According to a confidential 2013 police report, the Ndrangheta group had used a number of well-known party donors to put a "legitimate public face on its activities".

The Ndrangheta and fellow Calabrian mafia groups have long been powerful economic forces in southern Italy due to their role as one of Europe's biggest importers of South American cocaine. Their influence has spread north during the current economic slump to cities including Rome, Milan and Bologna, where it has used its wealth to buy political influence.

Last Wednesday, the United States and Cuba formally agreed to restore diplomatic relations on July 20, setting up a trip to Havana by John Kerry, who would become the first US secretary of state to visit the country in 70 years.

Sealed by an exchange of letters between US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, the deal fulfils a pledge the former Cold War enemies made six months ago. It also attempts to end the recriminations that have predominated ever since Fidel Castro's rebels overthrew the US-backed government of Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959.

The letters set a date of July 20 for the re-establishment of relations, and embassies could be opened at that time or later.

Mr Kerry, speaking from Vienna, said he would visit Havana to raise the US flag outside the future US embassy, currently labelled an interests section.

Last Thursday, it was revealed that Colombia's government plans to carry out lie detector tests on senior civil servants who allocate contracts to private companies as it tries to clamp down on widespread corruption and embezzlement of public funds.

The lie detectors will be used to initially test executives in the 72 government departments that have so far signed up to a transparency pact. The executives will be tested before and after concluding contracts for provision of goods and services to the government.

The Andean country's vice president, German Vargas Lleras, is promoting the lie detector tests as a means of boosting investor confidence as the government allocates contracts to upgrade the national road network, estimated to cost more than $20bn.

In one of Colombia's most shocking public corruption scandals of the past decade, a family with links to a former mayor of the capital, Bogota, made off with up to $1bn after the family's company won contracts it barely executed, claiming it ran out of cash.

In 2014, Colombia was ranked 94th out of 174 countries for severity of corruption in a listing compiled by Transparency International.

Sunday Independent

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