Illegal immigration into Europe is being fuelled by airlines that sell budget tickets from North Africa for as little as €150, a senior EU border control official has warned.
Migrants buy low-cost, one-way tickets from Morocco and Algeria to Turkey and then slip into Europe via Turkey's porous land borders with Greece and Bulgaria, according to Gil Arias, the deputy executive director of Frontex.
They are able to take advantage of a recent policy of so-called visa diplomacy on the part of Turkey, which has sought to expand its influence in the Middle East by relaxing visa restrictions for citizens from other Muslim nations.
The route is quicker and safer than taking a people-smuggling boat across the Mediterranean.
Two such vessels sank earlier this month in the waters between Libya and Lampedusa in Italy, with the loss of more than 500 lives.
"Due to this visa policy by Turkey to the North African nations, people are flying to Istanbul on cheap flights and then on to Greece and more recently, Bulgaria," said Mr Arias, who previously served as a police inspector and border control official in Spain.
"When they get there they discard their travel documents, and will sometimes pretend to be either Palestinians or Syrians in order to try to claim refugee status."
There is no suggestion that airlines are complicit in illegal immigration, but Mr Arias said Frontex was powerless to stop them carrying such passengers – mainly Moroccan and Algerian passport-holders. He said there was no evidence in advance that the passengers were planning to cross into the European Union.
His comments come at a time of growing tensions between EU nations over how to tackle illegal immigration and who should share the burden. In Greece, public anxiety over the influx has helped in the rise of the Far-Right Golden Dawn party.
Last week, Bulgaria announced it was planning to spend €2.5m on a fence to limit the number of Syrian migrants fleeing the country's civil war.
The 20-mile long fence will go around the mountainous region of Elhovo, one of the most difficult areas to police, after the arrival of 6,800 migrants – 70pc of them Syrian – since the start of the year. Bulgaria, which is the EU's poorest member, has demanded extra Brussels aid to deal with the problem.
Last week, a Portuguese MEP also criticised Britain and France over the progress of a €30m EU mission to advise border guards in post-Gaddafi Libya, currently the main departure point for Europe-bound people-trafficking boats.
Ana Gomes, who is responsible for Libya on the European Parliament's security and defence sub-committee, said the mission was failing because of the lack of a basic police force and army in Libya since Gaddafi's fall.
Security concerns currently prevent its staff even visiting Libya's southern border area with Niger, Chad and Sudan, from where many migrants come.
"You cannot deal with border security if you don't deal comprehensively with the wider security structure of Libya," said Ms Gomes, who accused Britain and France of focusing too much on trade deals with Libya. (Daily Telegraph, London)