Saturday

27th Feb 2021

Balkan leaders to stop pushing migrants to neighbours

  • Merkel asked Juncker to call the meeting (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Leaders from the Western Balkans migrant route agreed Sunday (25 October) to create 100,000 places for migrants, to refrain from pushing them towards neighbouring countries, to strengthen border controls and registration, and to create a permanent system of information-sharing.

In a 17-point action plan, they also agreed to increase capacities "to provide temporary shelter, rest, food, health, water and sanitation to all in need."

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"What we are concerned to do is to ward off a threatening humanitarian crisis and to tackle a dramatic situation," European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said at a press conference after the seven-hour meeting.

Greece committed to create 30,000 new places for migrants before the end of the year, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) providing 20,000 more places.

These 20,000 places will be provided through a system of "rent subsidies and host family programmes". "The civil society, the families," will be "invited" to participate, the UNHCR Antonio Guterres said.

Fifty thousand additional places will be created on the Western Balkans route with the support of the UNHCR.

"It cannot be that in the Europe of 2015, people are left to fend for themselves, sleeping in fields and wading chest-deep through rivers in freezing temperatures," Juncker said.

'Very tense at the beginning'

Beyond the humanitarian emergency, with tens of thousands of people stranded in various Balkan countries because of borders closures, the first objective of the meeting was to get leaders talking to each other.

At the opening roundtable, Juncker asked the leaders of Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia to describe the situation in their country and say what they need.

The discussion was, at times, difficult.

It was "very tense at the beginning" between Slovenia's Miro Cerar and Croatia's Zoran Milanovic, according to an EU source. On Friday, Slovenia had threatened to erect a fence on its Croatia border.

There were also tensions between the Macedonian president and the Greek PM Alexis Tsipras. Before the meeting, Gjorge Ivanov complained that "cooperation with Greece is very low level" and said he hoped Greece would accept to share information.

When he arrived at the meeting, Hungary's PM Viktor Orban told the press he is "simply an observer" because his country "is not on the route anymore" after closing its borders. "Let's say he was robust," during the roundtable, another EU official said.

"At least we had a chance to speak to each other and learn the problems we are facing," Serb prime minister Aleksandar Vucic told reporters.

Contact points

A draft declaration submitted to leaders' sherpas Sunday morning had been rejected by several countries. It was amended and adopted by leaders at a working dinner after the roundtable.

In the end, German chancellor Angela Merkel, who Juncker admitted had "suggested" the mini-summit, said it was "a positive meeting".

The 11 leaders committed to stay in close contact by nominating "contact points within 24 hours to allow daily exchanges and coordination". These contacts will hold a videoconference once a week with a commission representative to monitor the implementation of what was agreed.

The second main goal of the meeting was to slow and better organise the flow of migrants along the route, from Greece to Austria and Germany.

"We have made clear to everyone tonight that waiving [migrants] through has to be stopped and that is what is going to happen," Juncker said.

"[We don't want] this wild border-crossing situation. [Instead] the countries will inform and consult other countries about where refugees are going through and inform them about the density of the flow of refugees," he said.

'Qualitative step'

"Under the current circumstances, we will discourage the movement of refugees or migrants to the border of another country of the region," leaders said in the declaration.

Emphasis was put on Greece's responsibility to control its borders and ensure that migrants are registered on its territory.

The Poseidon Operation in the Agean See will be upscaled and Frontex "support to Greece in registering and fingerprinting activities" will be "significantly" strengthened.

The Greek and Macedonian PMs also agreed to "immediate bilateral border-related confidence-building measures, in particular the strengthening of border cooperation, between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."

"Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania will strengthen the management of the external land border. Frontex should assist Greece in the registration of refugees and migrants who have not yet been registered in the country," the declaration states.

"Greece is willing to commit itself to setting up hotspots," Merkel said. "The distribution mechanism that was agreed for 160,000 refugees within the EU can actually start."

"This is an important qualitative step towards a more ordered management of the situation and the sharing of the burden," she added.

Other measures include a reinforcement of Frontex support on the Bulgaria-Turkey and Croatia-Slovenia borders and the deployment, within a week, of 400 police officers in Slovenia.

'Return is absolutely normal'

Another dimension of the talks was the return of rejected asylum seekers. The EU will intensify talks with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to find agreements on readmission.

While selection between asylum seekers and economic migrants is becoming a priority of EU migration policy, the UNHCR's Antonio Guterres gave his political backing.

"We agreed that return is absolutely normal, provided that migrants' dignity and human rights are fully respected," he said.

On the other hand, he added, "receiving or not people in need of protection is not an option, it is an obligation."

"Swift implementation" of the measures agreed shall begin Monday. 


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