No Flood So Far From Schengen's Expansion

BERLIN -- Fears that hordes of illegal immigrants would pour into the European Union once border controls for nine mostly Eastern European nations were abolished a month ago appear, at least for now, to have been unfounded.

Governments in Germany, Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic said there was no evidence of a rise in either illegal immigration or crime since the EU's Schengen zone was enlarged on Dec. 21 -- although the EU's own border agency says it is too early to draw conclusions.

"There's been no new mass migration detected, and the situation on a whole has been rather quiet," said Gabriele Hermani, a German Interior Ministry spokeswoman.

"We're confident the reorganized federal police force [ex-border patrol] will master the challenges," she said. Some 6,000 police operate in mobile patrols in a 30-kilometer-wide strip at the German frontier, randomly checking one in 2,000 vehicles.

The extension of the Schengen zone on Dec. 21 to nine more nations created an area of passport-free travel spread over 4,000 kilometers and 24 countries, from Estonia to Portugal.

The enlargement brought in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Malta, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It is expected to boost business and tourism but brought fears of increased people-trafficking and crime.

In Germany, where tabloid media and a police union fanned fears, the Interior Ministry said about 500 people, most from Chechnya, were caught between Dec. 21 and Jan. 13 and sent back to Poland. It said many of those caught had applied previously for asylum in Poland and had not entered the EU after Dec. 21.

German police unions said only a fraction of illegal immigrants were caught, warning that the true number is far higher.

But Interior Ministry officials said the numbers, which rose briefly in the final week of 2007, were similar to before enlargement. They said the fact that illegal immigrants were caught showed the system works.

The issue has also stirred emotions in Austria. Tabloid newspapers raised worries of a massive increase in illegal migrants and asylum-seekers, but broadsheet dailies, public television and other media called the fears groundless.

Austrian Interior Minister G?nther Platter said he felt the debate had been hijacked for partisan politics.

"You have to take the public's fears very, very seriously," Platter said. "It's obviously a different situation when the border controls suddenly disappear. But I don't see more seeking asylum ... and I don't see an increase in crime."

Figures from Poland's border agency headquarters show the number of illegal immigrants stopped on the EU frontiers under Polish jurisdiction -- with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine -- was down nearly 50 percent in the three weeks after Dec. 21.

"Too little time has passed to identify any particular trends," said Michal Parzyszek, a spokesman for the EU's external borders watchdog."If any surge has occurred, it would be between the nine new Schengen states and the previous members," he said.