Czech border controls blocking migrants' route to Germany frustrate Slovakia

By Radovan Stoklasa and Jason Hovet

KUTY, Slovakia (Reuters) -Slovakia on Thursday stepped up pressure on the Czech Republic to ease border controls in place for weeks to combat an increase in the number of migrants, mostly from Syria, who are heading to Germany and Western Europe.

The controls have raised tensions between the allies, with Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger challenging their use under European Union rules. He discussed the issue with his Czech counterpart Petr Fiala on Thursday evening in Prague.

The controls, at entry points along the 252-km (157-mile) Czech-Slovak border to deter migrants on foot and being smuggled in vehicles, have snarled truck transport, often causing hours-long delays and angering Slovak truck drivers.

Slovakia says the controls violate principles of the EU's visa-free Schengen zone, of which both countries are part.

Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan said after the meeting of Czech and Slovak delegations that the checks would stay in place but that there was an effort to ease them for the locals.

"It would be certainly good to perform the checks so that they would be as fast as possible for Czech and Slovak citizens," Rakusan said in an interview at Czech TV.

"We agreed on stronger police cooperation right at the border," he said, adding that the two prime ministers would give more details on Friday.

The EU has acknowledged the temporary Czech controls due to "irregular migration, activities of organised groups of smugglers".

This month, the Slovak government installed a 16-tent camp in Kuty, a border town, to manage the flow of migrants getting stopped by the controls.

"I want to go to Germany because my father and my family are there," 24-year-old Khalid said, speaking from that camp after getting stopped by Czech controls, following an already six-week journey from Syria.

"I just want to go to Germany to work. I don't have money."

The Czech government put the checks in place on Sept. 29 after seeing a 12-fold rise, to 12,000, in the number of detentions of illegal migrants so far in 2022.

Since then, Czech police said on Monday they had found 8,840 cases of illegal migration, and had returned 2,841 people to Slovakia.

The vast majority of migrants have been Syrians, heading mainly to Germany, authorities say. The Slovak Interior Ministry said Syria's civil war made it difficult to expel the migrants.

Around 200 people filled the camp earlier this week, most staying two or three days.

"We are trying to set up a coordinated centre here where the people can stay for a moment and then continue further," Michaela Kanova, from the Slovak interior ministry's crisis section, told a briefing at the camp on Thursday.

Truckers held a brief border blockade overnight on Monday before getting promises from authorities the situation would be eased.

The Slovaks have also sought to help strengthen the external Schengen border between EU-member Hungary and non-member Serbia, where many migrants are crossing into the EU before passing through Slovakia and onto the Czech Republic.

(Reporting by Radovan Stoklasa in Kuty, Jason Hovet and Robert Muller in Prague; Editing by Alison Williams and Deepa Babington)