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Friday 30 September 2016

EU President Juncker calls mini-summit as refugees stranded in Balkans brave freezing temperatures

Tom Körkemeier and Paul Taylor

Published 21/10/2015 | 18:50

Migrants move past a chapel after crossing from Croatia into Slovenia Credit: Darko Bandic
Migrants move past a chapel after crossing from Croatia into Slovenia Credit: Darko Bandic

The head of the European Commission has called an extraordinary meeting of several European leaders to tackle the migrant crisis in the western Balkans as thousands trying to reach Germany are trapped in deteriorating conditions.

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President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement on Wednesday that he had invited the leaders of Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia, plus key organisations, to a mini-summit aimed at “immediate action”.

Read More: Burning tents and freezing temperatures make for miserable conditions for migrants in the Balkans

"In view of the unfolding emergency in the countries along the western Balkans migratory route, there is a need for much greater cooperation, more extensive consultation and immediate operational action," the European Union executive said.

He added that at the meeting, the leaders must agree to “common operational conclusions which can be immediately implemented".

People wait to be registered by local authorities in the Serbian town of Presevo (AP)
People wait to be registered by local authorities in the Serbian town of Presevo (AP)

The mini-summit comes as crowds of refugees and other migrants camp by roads in western Balkan countries in worsening autumn weather after Hungary sealed its borders with Serbia and Croatia, causing a chain reaction in other overwhelmed states.

Read More: Slovenia considers border fence as army is deployed to guard against migrants

Slovenia passed legislation on Wednesday to give the army more power to help police guarding the state border - which forms the outer edge of the passport-free Schengen zone - as refugees streamed in from Croatia on the way to Austria.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (L) waves past Spanish Prime Minister and leader of the right-wing People's Party Mariano Rajoy Credit: GERARD JULIEN
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (L) waves past Spanish Prime Minister and leader of the right-wing People's Party Mariano Rajoy Credit: GERARD JULIEN

EU diplomats said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under domestic pressure over an influx of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, was the driving force behind the latest meeting, just 10 days after the last full EU summit on migration.

Some diplomats voiced concern that Berlin was deepening divisions in the 28-nation bloc by pressing for a permanent mechanism for relocating refugees among member states, which several governments saw as an open-ended commitment and were determined to resist, at least until the influx can be limited.

Read More: Thousands of migrants stranded in cold and fog in Balkans

Migrant children pose after crossing the border from Serbia in Bapska, Croatia October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
Migrant children pose after crossing the border from Serbia in Bapska, Croatia October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

A dividing line is emerging between governments that see the crisis primarily as a security issue requiring stronger action to control the EU's borders, stem the flow of migrants, send back those not entitled to asylum and pay other states if necessary to keep them at bay, and those that see it above all as a humanitarian integration challenge.

Diplomats said Tusk reflected the security concerns more strongly, while Juncker saw the EU's humanitarian values at stake. Berlin and Commission officials are also sceptical of the chances of preventing desperate people from reaching Europe.

Migrants wait for transfer after they crossed the Austrian-Slovenian border in Spielfeld, Austria Credit: Christian Bruna (AP)
Migrants wait for transfer after they crossed the Austrian-Slovenian border in Spielfeld, Austria Credit: Christian Bruna (AP)

Last week's EU summit agreed on a range of measures to strengthen external border protection and offer financial incentives to Turkey and other nations to keep refugees on their soil and deter them from heading to Europe.

The new meeting appeared to be an effort by Juncker and Merkel to raise pressure on central and southeast European states to cooperate among themselves in managing the migration flow in a more humane way and end a series of unilateral actions that have raised political tensions.

Read More: Refugee crisis: Hungary to 'seal' Croatian border from midnight

But Timothy Kirkhope, a British Conservative who is handling the European Parliament's work on migrant relocation, urged Juncker to invite all EU leaders.

By inviting Germany alone of the main destination states, he said, "I fear that you will give many other EU countries ... the strong impression that decisions are being made by a handful of countries that will have lasting effects in all EU member states".

The meeting will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. (1500-1800 GMT) on Sunday, followed by a working dinner and will also involve United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, the European Asylum Support Office and EU border agency Frontex.

European Council President Donald Tusk was invited but officials said it was not yet clear he could attend. Luxembourg was invited as the current chair of EU ministerial councils.

Reuters

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