Karl Ritter

STOCKHOLM: Dazzled by an unprecedented wave of migration, Sweden on Thursday put into words an uncomfortable reality for Europe: If the continent isn’t going to welcome more than 1 million people a year, it will have to deport large numbers of them to countries plagued by social unrest and abject poverty.

Interior Minister Anders Ygeman said Sweden could send back 60,000-80,000 asylum seekers in the coming years. Even in a country with a long history of immigration, that would be a scale of expulsions unseen before.

“The first step is to ensure voluntary returns,” Ygeman told Swedish newspaper Dagens Industri. “But if we don’t succeed, we need to have returns by coercion.”

The coercive part is where it gets uncomfortable. Packing unwilling migrants, even entire families, onto chartered airplanes bound for the Balkans, the Middle East or Africa evokes images that clash with Europe’s humanitarian ideals.

But the sharp rise of people seeking asylum in Europe last year almost certainly will also lead to much higher numbers of rejections and deportations.

European Union officials have urged member countries to quickly send back those who don’t qualify for asylum so that Europe’s welcome can be focused on those who do, such as people fleeing the war in Syria.

“People who do not have a right to stay in the European Union need to be returned home,” said Natasha Bertaud, a spokeswoman for the EU’s executive Commission.

“This is a matter of credibility that we do return these people, because you don’t want to give the impression of course that Europe is an open door,” she said.

EU statistics show most of those rejected come from the Balkans including Albania and Kosovo, some of Europe’s poorest countries. Many applicants running away from poverty in West Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh also are turned away. Even people from unstable countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia can’t count on getting asylum unless they can prove they, personally, face grave risks at home.

Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s vice president, told Dutch TV station NOS this week that the majority of people seeking asylum in Europe are not refugees.

“More than half, 60 percent, should have to return much more quickly. If we start with doing that, it would already make a huge difference,” he said.

Sending them back is easier said than done. In 2014, EU nations returned less than 40 percent of the people who were ordered to be deported.

Sometimes those seeking asylum go into hiding after receiving a negative decision. Sometimes their native country doesn’t want them back.

EU countries, including Sweden and Germany, have had some success sending people back to the Balkans on chartered flights. Of the 37,000 who returned from Germany on their own accord last year, all but about 5,000 were from the Balkans.

“It’s been more difficult with Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Mikael Ribbenvik, director of operations at the Swedish Migration Agency.

Meanwhile, the stream of migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe continues.

Greece’s coast guard said 25 people died, including 10 children, when a migrant boat sank Thursday off Samos, an island near the Turkish coast.

Romanian rescuers dropped off 119 African migrants in Italy after rescuing them from an inflatable dingy. The migrants were dehydrated and hypothermic, the Romanian border police said.