Wednesday 15 August 2018

Migrant crisis: Hungary to decide on possible border closure with Croatia today

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto attends an interview with Reuters in Budapest, Hungary October 15, 2015. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto attends an interview with Reuters in Budapest, Hungary October 15, 2015. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Krisztina Than

Hungary will make a decision on Friday on a possible closure of its border with Croatia to stem the flow of migrants, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in Brussels, public television M1 reported.

Orban said he would call a meeting of the national security cabinet early afternoon which would discuss the situation and "make the necessary decisions."

Orban's government has already built a steel fence to shut down the migrant route over Hungary's southern border with Serbia. Hungary also has in place a border fence along its frontier with Croatia, and Orban said on Thursday that the border could be sealed off "within an hour if necessary". 

European Union leaders have agreed to boost the protection of its outer frontiers to help contain the refugee emergency and gave its border agency more clout to deport people who do not qualify for asylum.

But the 28 leaders struggled to persuade a reluctant Turkey to do more to stop tens of thousands of refugees entering the bloc - despite plans for increased financial support, the easing of visa restrictions for Turkish citizens and accelerating the country's EU membership talks.

The summit in Brussels - the fourth this year focused on the refugee crisis - bore little fruit amid infighting between countries like Germany and Sweden, who have taken a larger role in the refugee crisis, and several eastern nations who have done less.

Senior EU officials complained that many member states had failed to live up to pledges to provide more funds, and experts to help fingerprint and screen people.

The meeting came as the International Organisation for Migration said more than 600,000 people had arrived by sea into Europe this year and more than 3,000 died trying to reach Europe to escape war or poverty.

Many entered through Greece from Turkey - home to two million Syrian refugees who have overwhelmed the country's coastguard and reception facilities.

The one positive note was the agreement to boost the Frontex border agency, as the EU mulls whether to set up a European border guard, which could help patrol Greece's patchwork island border with Turkey.

"In the coming months, the agency will develop into a more operational body," EU Council president Donald Tusk said. "Our aim is to give Frontex the right to return irregular migrants on its own initiative and to make it more proactive in protecting external borders."

Estimates based on EU figures suggest that a third of the people arriving in Europe might not qualify for asylum.

But no fresh pledges of money were made, despite a promise by the leaders last month to stump up hundreds of millions of euros for Syrian refugees and to help Africa better manage its borders.

"We are lacking 2.3 billion euros to be provided by member states," European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters after the summit. However, he said, the leaders promised this time that they would come up with the funds "in the next couple of weeks".

Frontex and the EU asylum office have appealed for a total of around 1,000 officers to help fingerprint people and decide whether they are eligible for asylum. So far, about a dozen of the 28 EU nations have offered around 130 personnel.

"We can and must do much better," Mr Tusk said, adding that the influx of migrants could get much worse.

In their final statement, the leaders gave "political support" for an action plan for Turkey to help it manage its own refugee emergency, but a final agreement proved elusive and discussions in Ankara will continue in coming days.

Meanwhile, thousands of people continue to risk the dangerous journey daily. Greece recovered seven more bodies off the island of Lesbos on Thursday after a migrant boat collision, and shivering newcomers streamed into Croatia seeking aid and shelter.

In the Balkans, rainstorms sweeping through Serbia and Croatia caught thousands as they made their arduous trek, leaving them standing in fields between two countries, in bitter weather, waiting for transport to destinations in western Europe.

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