Friday

19th Oct 2018

Migration hijacks EU-Balkan summit

  • Most migrants entering the EU are now taking the Western Balkan route (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

Migration is set to dominate a summit on the Western Balkans as senior commission officials, foreign ministers, and leaders gather in Vienna.

The summit on Thursday (27 August) comes amid the worst refugee crisis in Europe since WWII, as thousands of asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere scramble across the Balkans to reach Hungary, as well as risking sea crossings to Italy or Greece.

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Some 2,300 died in the first six months of this year. On Wednesday, another 50 were found dead in overcrowded boats off the Libyan coast.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, in a statement said the summit will be used to “tackle security and migration issues to the need to address economic and political difficulties in many countries”.

Mogherini, along with commission vice-president for energy union Maros Sefcovic, and EU commissioner for enlargement Johannes Hahn, are attending.

With most migrants now opting to take the Western Balkan route instead of first landing in Italy, the issue is likely to become a focal point in a summit initially slated to discuss topics like regional co-operation and infrastructure.

Frontex, the EU border agency, says over 100,000 people took the Western Balkan route at the start of the year. In 2014, during the same period, the figure was around 8,000.

They pass through Greece and into Gevgelija, a border town in Macedonia, then head to Serbia and into Hungary before moving on to other member states, particularly Germany.

“What we are witnessing at Europe’s borderlands is symptomatic of the absurdity of the European asylum system", said Gauri van Gulik, deputy director at Amnesty International for Europe and Central Asia.

He said the summit should be used to rework EU asylum laws and practices, noting refugees fleeing war should not have to risk hazardous journeys from Greece to reach the EU’s mainland.

Austria’s foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, in an interview with the BBC, said the point-of-entry rules on asylum under the so-called Dublin regulation "is not working anymore".

"If we do not have functional border controls at the external borders of the European Unoin, the whole idea of a European Unoin without borders inside is in danger."

Balkan nationals have also been a source of asylum demands despite having little chance of receiving it.

Albanian nationals top the list of asylum claims from the region to Germany, prompting calls to place the six Balkan nations on a safe country of origin list.

Macedonia last week declared a two-day state of emergency, sealing its border with paramilitary police, who then fired flash bombs and tear gas at crowds of migrants.

But migrants there are now able to pass through the border with relative ease and are escorted onto busses and trains heading to Serbia.

“There are no huge groups of people waiting on the border right now,” Zoran Drangovski from the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association, which is at the border, told this website.

Some 3,000 are expected to make the border crossing every day for the next few months, according to the UNHCR.

Meanwhile, Hungary is discussing whether to deploy troops to help secure its border with Serbia after thousands slipped past its razor-wire fence in the past few days.

On Wednesday, police fired tear gas at around 200 migrants at a reception centre near the Serb border. Hungary’s right-wing government is also planning to criminalise irregular border crossing.

The Czech Republic and Bulgaria have also explored military options.

The European Commission, for its part, ahead of the summit said it will release an additional €1.5 million in humanitarian funding to assist refugees and migrants in Serbia and Macedonia.

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EU leaders at the summit in Brussels want partnerships with north African states that go beyond migration. But internal EU reforms on asylum, especially sharing of migrants and refugees between member states, remain stuck.

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EU interior ministers are meeting in Luxembourg this Friday to discuss migration. The Austrian EU presidency is hoping to reach a consensus on Dublin reforms and a concept of 'mandatory solidarity' after briefing 27 EU states bilaterally over the summer.

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