Tuesday 23 January 2018

Flow of migrants continues amid bid by EU leaders to slow surge

An elderly Afghan and other migrants arrive on the north-eastern Greek island of Lesbos after a journey by dinghy from the Turkish coast (AP)
An elderly Afghan and other migrants arrive on the north-eastern Greek island of Lesbos after a journey by dinghy from the Turkish coast (AP)
German chancellor Angela Merkel said the migrant crisis was one of the greatest tests Europe had faced (AP)

The surge of migrants across the Balkans on their way to Western Europe is continuing unabated just hours after an EU-sponsored agreement to slow the flow.

European and Balkan leaders agreed on measures to stem the flow of tens of thousands whose flight from war and poverty has overwhelmed authorities and heightened tension among nations along the route.

Croatia's police said today that more than 13,000 migrants had arrived from Serbia in the past 24 hours.

About 260,000 have passed through Croatia since mid-September when Hungary put up a fence on the border with Serbia, diverting the flow.

Slovenia's police said that nearly 10,000 migrants had entered Slovenia from Croatia in the same period, bringing the total number of arrivals in the past 12 days to almost 75,000.

Earlier, in a statement to paper over the deep divisions about how to handle the crisis, the leaders committed to bolster the borders of Greece as it struggles to cope with the wave of refugees from Syria and beyond that cross over through Turkey.

Reception capacities should be boosted in Greece and along the Balkans migration route to shelter 100,000 more people as winter loomed, they said.

They also agreed to expand border operations and make full use of biometric data like fingerprints as they register and screen migrants, before deciding whether to grant them asylum or send them home.

"The immediate imperative is to provide shelter," European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said after chairing the often bad-tempered mini-summit of 11 regional leaders in Brussels.

"It cannot be that in the Europe of 2015 people are left to fend for themselves, sleeping in fields."

"This is one of the greatest litmus tests that Europe has ever faced," German chancellor Angela Merkel said after the summit. "Europe has to demonstrate that it is a continent of values and of solidarity.

"We will need to take further steps in order to get through this."

Slovenian prime minister Miro Cerar said his small Alpine nation was being overwhelmed by the refugees and was not receiving enough help from its EU partners.

He put the challenge in simple terms: if no fresh approach is forthcoming "in the next few days and weeks, I do believe that the European Union and Europe as a whole will start to fall apart".

The leaders agreed to rapidly dispatch 400 border guards to Slovenia as a short-term measure.

As they arrived at the hastily-organised meeting, some leaders traded blame for the influx with their neighbours, with Greece targeted for the mismanagement of its porous island border.

"We should go down south and defend the borders of Greece if they are not able to do that," said Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who claimed he was attending the meeting only as an "observer" because Hungary was no longer on the migrant route since it tightened borders.

But the country that many say is another key source of the flow - Turkey - was not invited and some leaders said little could be done without its involvement.

"It has to be tackled in Turkey and Greece, and this is just a nice Sunday afternoon talk," Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanovic said, after complaining about having to leave an election campaign to take part in the mini-summit of nations in Europe's eastern "migrant corridor".

The refugee emergency has heightened tensions in the Balkans which have simmered since the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and some of those strains surfaced in Brussels.

Mr Cerar warned that he could be forced to act to ensure security if his EU partners, and notably Croatia, did not help ease the migrant strain on his country. He hoped the commitments taken by the leaders would make co-operation much better.

The leaders also committed to "discouraging" the movement of migrants towards their neighbours' borders without asking those countries first.

"Waving them through has to be stopped, and that is what is going to happen," Mr Juncker said. He underlined that the nations had agreed to weekly monitoring of their commitments to ensure compliance with the agreement.

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 says.

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 the newly displaced are heading toward already crowded facilities along the border with Turkey. "This is a cry for help," he says.

Press Association

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