Tuesday 23 January 2018

Juncker urges humanity and dignity towards refugees, references Irish in US

*Commission is proposing a further quota of 120,000 refugees 'in a compulsory way'
*Juncker: There is a reason there are more Murphys and O'Neills living in US than Ireland

People gather at the railway track in a camp near the Hungarian border with Serbia, in Roszke, southern Hungary. Photo: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
People gather at the railway track in a camp near the Hungarian border with Serbia, in Roszke, southern Hungary. Photo: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker
A man and children play with a ball at a refugee camp in the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija (AP)

By Alastair Macdonald

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, urging Europeans to show humanity and dignity, said today the EU executive would offer better protection for refugees but also improve its frontier defences and deport more illegal migrants.

In his first State of the Union address to the European Parliament, Juncker outlined an emergency plan for the compulsory distribution of 160,000 refugees among the 28 EU member states and promised a permanent asylum mechanism to cope with future crises.

Police try to stop migrants going under a fence to board a train at a station near Gevgelija, in Macedonia Photo: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov
Police try to stop migrants going under a fence to board a train at a station near Gevgelija, in Macedonia Photo: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov

He urged Europeans to welcome the refugees and not take fright. Europe was a continent where almost everyone had been a refugee at some time or another, and it was rich enough to cope with a challenge far smaller than the one facing Syria's neighbours - Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

"It is Europe today that represents a place of hope. This is something to be proud of and not something to fear," the former Luxembourg prime minister said in a marathon 80-minute speech.

"The Europe I want to live in is illustrated by those who want to help," he added, denouncing calls to discriminate among refugees according to religion.

Read more: Strict vetting for refugees who come to Ireland as crisis deepens

Hungarian police stopping refugees in Roszke, Hungary
Hungarian police stopping refugees in Roszke, Hungary

Listing the problem top among a written list of priorities, before the economy, Ukraine, climate change and a looming vote on Britain's membership of the bloc, he said the crisis was caused by "war, terror and instability in our neighbourhood".

Juncker acknowledged the European Union was in a bad state, saying "it is lacking Europe and it is lacking Union".

Juncker mentioned historic huge waves of Irish, Scottish and Polish immigration to the United States.

"There is a reason the number of O'Neills and Murphys living in the US exceeds the number in Ireland," he said.

"We Europeans should know and never forget why the right to asylum is one of the fundamental, most important rights. We should not forget that."

"It is true that Europe cannot house all the misery in the world. But we have to put it into perspective.

He confirmed plans for a common EU list of "safe countries of origins" whose citizens would be subject to fast-track deportations if they breached EU immigration laws.

He also urged EU member states to allow refugees to work from day one while their asylum applications are processed.

Juncker, whose proposals face opposition from several governments whose interior ministers will meet on Monday, pledged to improve the management of the bloc's external frontiers, bolster its Frontex border agency and take "steps toward the creation of European coastguard and border guard systems".

He also proposed a "more effective approach to return" - addressing complaints that too many people not entitled to asylum enter the Union illegally and remain there often despite legal proceedings that conclude they should return home.

Juncker called for efforts to strengthen the EU's common asylum system and a scheduled review of the so-called Dublin system, which stipulates that people may request asylum only in the state where they first enter the EU, straining resources in frontline countries in the south and east.

Answering criticism from refugee and migration agencies, he said the EU would "develop safe legal avenues for those in need of protection" - reducing the temptation to risk dangerous sea crossings and smuggling networks - as well as a permanent scheme to resettle refugees from other regions and better protection for refugees living in regions neighbouring Europe.

He also renewed a proposal to review the system by which workers can apply to migrate to the EU, addressing concerns on an ageing continent that it needs to attract new people.

Read more: The world's eyes are upon us, warns Merkel

The detailed proposals may provoke new wrangling among EU states and between national leaders and the EU executive.

Former communist central European states vehemently oppose any mandatory distribution of refugees. Juncker reminded them pointedly that refugees fleeing Soviet repression in their countries had been welcomed in large numbers in western Europe.

And he took a dig at Hungary's building of a frontier fence by saying desperate families fleeing Syria would cross any barrier and brave many dangers to escape their homeland.

The mounting scale of the human calamity on the bloc's frontiers -- and fears that discord might do wider damage to shared interests like freedom of travel across Europe's internal borders -- has kindled some willingness to compromise after an earlier Juncker plan in May provoked bitter recrimination.

"This time, the Commission seems to be proposing a more comprehensive approach, also addressing the need to control the external frontiers better," said one EU diplomat whose government was among those in the east who argued that their society, unused to immigration, could not take in large numbers.

"There is still a lot to negotiate. There is a lot we cannot accept. But the debate is now a lot less emotional."

Read more: EU stance on refugee crisis leaves us in a constitutional Catch 22

Also driving the EU towards some accord has been the stand taken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government has taken in the greatest number of asylum-seekers.

She has called on poorer eastern neighbours who receive German-funded EU subsidies to show solidarity -- and warned that the Schengen system of open borders from which they benefit is under threat from chaotic movements of migrants across the bloc.

"When Merkel needs something, and she plays it sensibly as she usually does, things start to move," said another senior EU diplomat from the formerly Communist east.

While Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban remains vocally opposed to relocation quotas, his country will now benefit from the scheme, having taken in tens of thousands. And Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz conceded on Tuesday that Warsaw could take in more than the 2,000 people it has said. Under Juncker's plan, EU sources say Poland would be asked to take in nearly 12,000.

EU officials have said countries could also be offered the chance to contribute financially rather than take in migrants.

Britain has been critical of the EU approach but is exempt from the bloc's asylum policies and will not take part, although Prime Minister David Cameron said this week it would accept up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years. Spain, which had complained its likely quota was too high, said on Tuesday it was ready to take what the European Union allocated to it.

Read more: EU chief calls traffickers 'murderers' who must be stopped

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