Thursday

21st Nov 2019

EU leaders to declare Balkan migrant route closed

  • Refugee woman in Syrian camp: EU leaders to tell migrants road through Greece is "closed" (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

European leaders will declare the Western Balkan migration route towards Austria and Germany closed, and will look into getting aid to Greece when they gather in Brussels on Monday (7 March) for an extraordinary summit.

“This route is now closed,” says the draft statement of the summit seen by EUobserver. It promises support for Greece, which has to deal with tens of thousands of asylum seekers stuck in their first point of entry to the EU.

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  • More and more people getting stuck on Greek side of Macedonia border, which has been closed for several days (Photo: Reuters)

“We will close the Western Balkans route, which was the main entry point for migrants with 880,000 entering in 2015 alone and 128,000 in the first two months of this year,” EU Council president Donald Tusk said to leaders in his invitation letter last Friday.

“This will mean an end to the so-called wave-through policy of migrants. It will not solve the crisis but it is a necessary pre-condition for a European consensus.”

EU officials are also hoping that news of the Western Balkan route being closed will discourage economic migrants and others to take the dangerous journey to Europe.

At the same time, EU border agency Frontex will also bolster its presence along Greece’s border with Macedonia and Albania.

There are concerns that frustrated migrants and refugees might look for alternative ways to get to Western Europe, possibly through Albania and Italy.

Greek authorities estimated that the number of refugees and migrants in Greece now stands at 33,320 with average daily new arrivals of 2,000 people.

Macedonia only allowed 160 people to cross the Idomeni crossing from Greece on Sunday, and only people fleeing from cities they consider to be affected by war.

It means that people from cities such as Aleppo in Syria, for instance, could enter, but those from the Syrian capital of Damascus or the Iraqi capital of Baghdad are being stopped, AP reported.

EU heads are expected to endorse a humanitarian aid plan unveiled last week by the bloc’s executive that would direct funding of up to €300 million this year to help with refugees in Greece.

Leaders are also expected to commit to “accelerate relocation” and share refugees from Greece among member states to alleviate the burden of caring for tens of thousands of people by the debt-stricken country.

EU officials hope a more orderly arrival of migrants will ease some member states’ reluctance and speed up the relocation process.

On Monday morning, 212 refugees have been relocated to France and Portugal from Greece, the European Asylum Support Office said.

“The immediate start of a reliable procedure to relocate refugees from our country to other EU states is an absolute emergency,” Greek prime minster Alexis Tsipras told leaders of his leftist Syriza party over the weekend.

Leaders are expected to work on restoring the Schengen passport-free travel zone based on a roadmap that was laid out by the EU Commission last Friday.

The meeting will aim to heal some of the bitter political divisions among EU members on the rise in recent months. In the absence of an effective European policy, more and more countries have fallen back on national solutions.

Seven countries in the 26-member Schengen zone reinstalled border checks and Austria unilaterally capped the number of asylum seekers it would take in.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Premier Mark Rutte met Turkey’s prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Sunday to prepare for the summit. Donald Tusk will also hold a series of meetings on Monday before the summit officially starts.

EU heads of state and government will also try to secure a deal with Turkey to take back large numbers of migrants who are not qualified for asylum during their lunch with Davutoglu.

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Turkey's PM plays hardball at EU summit

Turkey has surprised EU leaders by announcing new demands in return for stopping migrants. Sources speak of a €6bn price tag and visa-free travel by end of June.

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According to a new deal discussed Monday, Turkey would take all migrants who crossed illegally into Greece, while the EU would take Syrians directly from Turkey among other new concessions.

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Austrian lawmakers are set to pass a law that would prevent people from applying for asylum once a self-prescribed upper limit has been reached.

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