The European Union is considering setting up processing centers in the Balkans to stave off a humanitarian crisis and ease the burden of processing thousands of migrants, ministers said November 9.
Most of this year's nearly 800,000 migrants have been making their way to Germany through the so-called western Balkan route, which winds through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria.
EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said the new processing centers would be set up in non-EU countries such as Macedonia and Serbia.
The idea was motivated by concern that with winter setting in, migrants might be left out in the cold and in limbo in poor, Balkan states outside the EU as richer EU states such as Germany and Sweden reach their capacity to take people in.
"Some member states will not be able to manage the burden much longer," and have been closing their borders and shutting their doors to the flood of migrants, said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.
"We have to avoid at all cost a domino effect that would have catastrophic consequences for Balkan nations."
The EU has so far focused on getting migrants registered, fingerprinted, and identified in Greece before distributing those qualifying for asylum to other member states.
But Asselborn said it might be time to change tack.
"The transit countries between Greece and Germany or Sweden should also have infrastructure, processing centers where all those who cannot be processed in the country of arrival - be it Italy or Greece, but above all Greece - can be registered," he said.
The EU interior ministers said in a joint statement that they agreed to "explore the concept of processing centers" in the Balkans.
The centers would screen, fingerprint, and separate asylum seekers from economic migrants. Asylum procedures could also be started at the Balkan centers, Asselborn said, adding that the idea still has to be further explored and fleshed out.
Asselborn also suggested that the EU might need to set up shelters for migrants in the Balkans to prevent a humanitarian disaster with the winter approaching.
"We can't allow people to die of cold in the Balkans," he said.
Last month, EU leaders agreed with Balkan countries, including Serbia and Macedonia, to ensure accommodation for 50,000 people in transit between Greece and the rest of the bloc.
EU officials said November 9 that there could be overlap between those places of shelter and asylum processing centers.
Whether the idea will be welcomed in the Balkans remains to be seen, with many of the countries there already overwhelmed by the migration influx.
Since the shuttling of refugees from Greece's islands to the mainland resumed November 6, more than 10,000 people have reached Macedonia, Greek state television reported.
With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AFP