Saturday 16 December 2017

EU agrees on plan as refugees at risk of freezing to death

Migrants sit inside buses, as they are transported to Brezice refugee camp in Rigonce, Slovenia.
Migrants sit inside buses, as they are transported to Brezice refugee camp in Rigonce, Slovenia.
Angela Merkel

Louise Lehman in Brussels

European Union and Balkan leaders meeting in Brussels have agreed a 17-point plan to cooperate on managing flows of migrants through the Balkan peninsula.

Some 100,000 places in reception centres will be set up across the Balkans to help the EU to cope with the influx of migrants, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said yesterday.

About 50,000 places will be created in Greece and another 50,000 on the route through Balkan countries such as Macedonia and Serbia, Mr Juncker confirmed.

The UN refugee agency will help set up the centres. The plan comes after Mr Junker warned migrants would start freezing to death as winter approaches.

The leaders also agreed that the EU border agency Frontex would step up activity on the Greek-Macedonian border to ensure people trying to cross would be registered.

More than 9,000 migrants arrived in Greece every day last week, the highest rate so far this year. "We have made very clear that the policy of simply waving people through must be stopped," Mr Juncker said, referring to agreements to cooperate and avoid unilateral national measures that have contributed to chaos throughout the region.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pictured who pushed for the meeting to be called, said: "Europe must show it is a continent of values, a continent of solidarity . . . This is a building block but we need to take many further steps."

Here are the main points of what has been agreed:

* Increase reception capacity to 30,000 places by the end of the year in Greece. The UN refugee agency will provide rent subsidies and host family programmes for at least 20,000 more people.

* Seek additional capacity of 50,000, reaching a total of 100,000 along the western Balkans route and Greece.

* Deploy 400 police officers within a week to Slovenia.

* Step up efforts to facilitate return of migrants who are not in need of international protection and step up cooperation on repatriation with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq and Pakistan.

* Scale up the Poseidon Sea Joint Operation in Greece, in particular the EU's border agency Frontex's presence in the Aegean Sea, and strengthen significantly Frontex support to Greece in registering and fingerprinting activities.

* Refrain from facilitating the movement of migrants to the border of another country. It is not acceptable to wave through refugees to another country.

* Set up contact points to allow daily exchanges of information regarding migrant movements.

* Exchange information on the size of movement and flows of refugees. Frontex as well as the EU's asylum office ESAO will put this exchange of information in place.

* Contact financial institutions, including the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to secure finances for accommodation of refugees.

* Step up police and judicial cooperation actions against migrant smuggling, engaging Europol and Interpol in Western Balkan route operations.

* Reinforce support of the bloc's border agency Frontex at the border between Bulgaria and Turkey and set up a new Frontex operation at the external land borders between Greece and Macedonia and Greece and Albania to focus on exit checks and registration of refugees who were not registered in Greece.

* Work together with Frontex to detect irregular border crossing and support registration and fingerprinting in Croatia.

Warnings that refugees crossing the Balkans will begin freezing to death as winter approaches, were issued earlier.

Mr Juncker said a solution was urgently needed, or thousands of refugee families facing winter temperature on the hillsides and freezing river banks of Eastern Europe would die.

"Every day counts," he said. "Otherwise we will soon see families in cold rivers in the Balkans perish miserably."

Miro Cerar, the Slovenian prime minister, said the EU was days from collapse as his country buckled under an "unbearable" influx of migrants.

Up to 100,000 Syrians have been displaced in the last three weeks by the recent surge in fighting following the Russian military intervention, a Norwegian humanitarian group said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council says the new wave of displacement is mostly from the province of Aleppo, where Syrian government and allied troops, emboldened by Russian air strikes, began a ground offensive on October 16.

The Islamic State group has also seized new territories in Aleppo, pushing out rival rebels and fighting with government troops.

Others were displaced by the air strikes and fighting in Hama and Homs.

Karl Schembri, the council's media adviser, says that the newly displaced are heading towards already crowded facilities along the border with Turkey.

"This is a cry for help," he says.

Irish Independent

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