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Can security forces screen refugees arriving in Europe?

March 7, 2016 at 7:57 PM EST
As more and more Middle Eastern refugees look to an increasingly overwhelmed Europe for asylum, concerns over terrorist infiltration are growing. Human rights activists say such worries are nothing more than xenophobic scaremongering, while military officials and counterterrorism experts contend that the threat is real -- and spreading like a cancer. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But, first, as we reported earlier, European leaders met today on the refugee crisis. One major ongoing issue, how to screen such a huge volume of people for a small number of possible terrorists.

As special correspondent Malcolm Brabant tells us now, it’s not an easy job.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Here is a genuinely innocent and uplifting scene from Europe’s refugees crisis.

(SINGING)

MALCOLM BRABANT: Jerome Kaluta from Congo is providing a few moments’ joy for Afghan children stranded in Greece after Macedonia sealed the migrant trail at the border.

But what worries Europe’s military, intelligence and police agencies are the large numbers of fit young men entering the E.U. Many threw away their documents on the instructions of smugglers and so the authorities often have no idea who they really are.

NATO’s supreme commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, left the Senate Armed Services Committee in no doubt about his fears in testimony last week.

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, NATO: Europe faces mass migration spurred by state instability and state collapse and masking the movements of criminals, terrorists and foreign fighters. Within this mix, ISIL, or Da’esh, is spreading like a cancer, taking advantage of paths of least resistance, threatening European nations and our own with terrorist attacks.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This is Athens’ Victoria Square, where hundreds of refugees congregate every day, as they realized their preferred destinations in Northern Europe are no longer attainable.

Human rights activists worry that Europe’s humanitarian response is being endangered by what they regard as scare-mongering.

George Kosmopoulos of Amnesty International is disturbed that the refugee crisis and the perceived terrorist threat are being conflated.

GEORGE KOSMOPOULOS, Director, Amnesty International Greece: The way we see it, these people are genuine refugees. And what they’re fleeing for is actually terror and very, very great human rights violations. They’re leaving behind war. They’re leaving behind destruction. And this is the lens we should apply, and not put the blame to a whole group of people who are simply looking for safety and a better future in Europe.

MALCOLM BRABANT: General Breedlove’s comments are at odds with the analysis of senior E.U. officials. They believe that he’s exaggerated. But, recently, Rob Wainwright, who is the director of Europol, the European politics agency, said that he believed that there were as many as 5,000 I.S.-trained jihadis wandering free in Europe with the intention of causing mass casualties amongst the civilian population.

Mr. Wainwright added, however, that he didn’t think that there was any concrete evidence to suggest that terrorists were using the migration flow as cover to infiltrate Europe.

But Mary Bossi, one of Greece’s leading terrorism experts, believes that European officials are downplaying the potential threat from I.S.

MARY BOSSI, University of Piraeus: It comes to the number of 30,000 foreign fighters into the ISIS. These foreign fighters come from Europe and Russia. They come from Western countries and Russia and all over the place. So, a number of fighters who are entering, only to travel up and forth from tension areas to the Western countries is much greater than the number that are given to us.

I think they are giving us a smaller number in order to keep the threat level lower.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Patrolling Greece’s long and porous maritime with Turkey are a flotilla of fast-response vessels from various E.U. countries.

They’re attached to the border agency Frontex. It’s reinforcing Greece, whose financial crisis has hobbled its ability to protect Europe’s eastern flank. Frontex boats are rescuing migrants in the thousands. Information obtained on the front line is fed back to the Frontex situation room in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

Communications chief Izabella Cooper:

IZABELLA COOPER, Frontex: The green dots here that we are seeing are — represent boats with migrants and refugees coming from Turkey towards Greece since the beginning of this year. And the white ones that we see here on different islands, we can see three of them, are ongoing search and rescue.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Critics accuse the agency of being little more than a taxi service. But Berndt Korner, Frontex’s deputy director, insists that the new improved screening of migrants is providing crucial information for Europol, the agency responsible for dealing with terrorism.

BERNDT KORNER, Frontex: ISIS, as you mentioned it, is one of the core issues that we are devoting our attention to, but this is only one part. We are just trying to investigate whoever is apprehended, whoever is brought to the offices, check them through the databases, perform the necessary security checks, in order to prevent that anything slips through.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But do you think General Breedlove is correct when he says that it is spreading like a cancer?

BERNDT KORNER: We have made detections. Those detections have been forwarded to the national authorities for proper decision-taking. We have strengthened our capabilities in anti-terrorism measures.

So, for the time being, whatever we could detect was done. The sharing of intelligence and so the cooperation has been greatly enhanced.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This used to be Athens’ main airport. Now disused and almost derelict, it is providing the most basic shelter for migrants thwarted by the new travel restrictions.

Greek states and agencies are nowhere to be seen, residents relying on the kindness of ordinary citizens.

Among those stuck here is Edriss Bayat, who shows his certificate of employment as an administrator for NATO in Afghanistan. We met Bayat three weeks ago in Lesbos after he was brought ashore by Greek coast guards. He was turned back by the Macedonian authorities, despite being a Taliban target, because of his relationship with NATO, underscored by this photograph with General David Petraeus.

EDRISS BAYAT, Refugee: More than 90 percent or 80 percent of the people, they are traveling with a small child, with wives and mothers and families. So, a terrorist is not going to travel with their family or a small child. If it’s terrorists, they should come alone. And I don’t know how it’s possible for a terrorist to come and stay in the compounds.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Back at Victoria Square, musician Jerome Kaluta has a message for Europe, as it prepares to shatter the refugees’ hopes.

JEROME KALUTA, Congolese Musician: I think it’s in our best interest to be together, to live with everyone and anybody, because we are all human beings, and we all have rights. We all are God’s children.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Although that sentiment is enshrined in European treaties, the reality is that the E.U. is delivering the following edict: Stay away.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Athens.

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