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EU Discord Deepens Amid Warnings Of Looming 'Humanitarian Crisis'

The European Union has been struggling to cope with a surge in migration that saw more than 1 million new arrivals in the 28-member bloc last year.
The European Union has been struggling to cope with a surge in migration that saw more than 1 million new arrivals in the 28-member bloc last year.
By Eugen Tomiuc

Interior ministers from the European Union, Turkey, and the Balkans held fresh talks on February 25 amid major differences over ways to contain an escalating migrant crisis.

The latest displays of disagreement, which led Greece to recall its ambassador to Austria, prompted Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn to warn at the Brussels meeting that the bloc was heading toward "anarchy."

Asselborn was speaking after EU members Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Slovenia joined forces with five non-EU Balkan states to announce common steps to restrict entry to migrants, while separately Hungary announced a referendum on refugee quotas.

The 28-member bloc, which has been struggling to cope with a surge in migration that saw more than 1 million new arrivals last year, has been criticized for its failure to show a united front in protecting the rights of the refugees.

More than 100,000 migrants have reached Europe so far this year, most of them coming over the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands and then on to the Balkans.

EU member Greece, who was left out of the Austria-brokered agreement, reacted angrily to the news, recalling its envoy to Vienna and warning it would not become Europe's "Lebanon," a state that has found itself awash in refugees as conflict rages in the region.

Speaking ahead of the Brussels meeting, Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas criticized "unilateral" actions that affect Greece.

"A very large number [of participants] here will attempt to discuss how to address a humanitarian crisis in Greece that they themselves intend to create," Mouzalas added.

Fingerprinting New Arrivals

Mouzalas was particularly critical of other Balkan countries that endorsed the Vienna deal, which included non-EU Balkan nations Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.

"Greece will not accept unilateral actions. Greece can also carry out unilateral actions. Greece will not accept becoming Europe's Lebanon, a warehouse of souls, even if this were to be done with major [EU] funding."

Lebanon hosts the largest per-capita number refugees in the world, including 1 million Syrians, but also many Palestinians.

The measures announced on February 24 in Vienna include the fingerprinting of all new arrivals and the rejection of those with fake documents or none at all.

Many of those arriving in Europe have fled the five-year war in Syria, but economic migrants have also joined their ranks.

Under the deal, only those deemed in need of protection would be accepted as refugees -- a condition that could restrict refugee status to Syrians and Iraqis.

Macedonia already enacted the measures at its border with Greece over the weekend, barring entry to Afghans, who make up many of the migrants.

Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner defended the deal, describing it as a "chain reaction of reason."

Mikl-Leitner on February 25 warned that the refugee crisis could threaten the EU's very survival if it is not brought under control.

Meanwhile, a decision by EU member Hungary to hold a referendum on possible mandatory quotas for refugees prompted criticism from Brussels.

The Hungarian referendum -- for which a date has yet to be set -- was announced on February 24 by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who said Brussels has no right to "redraw Europe's cultural and religious identity."

European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told a news briefing in Brussels, "We fail to understand how it [the referendum] would fit into the decision-making progress agreed to by all EU member states under the treaties."

Hungary voted in September against an EU-agreed quota system to allocate 160,000 asylum seekers among member states under which Budapest should accept some 2,300 migrants.

So far Hungary has taken none, and even built a fence, topped with razor wire, along the borders with Serbia and Croatia to keep migrants out.

EU Response Slammed

The EU's lack of a coherent response to the crisis has also been criticized by rights groups.

"The European Union, the world's richest political bloc with a total population of over 500 million people, singularly failed to come up with a coherent, humane, and rights-respecting response to this challenge," said London-based Amnesty International in its annual report released on February 24.

Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International's deputy program director for Europe and Central Asia, said the EU appeared content to simply pass the hot potato to other parties.

"There are no effective mechanisms for processing the refugee claims, and in fact the countless summits that European leaders had were mostly designed to find ways of stopping the refugee influx rather than addressing these issues and striking agreements with third countries, for instance, Turkey, on how those could absorb the refugee influx," Krivosheev told RFE/RL.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on February 25 that its members have agreed to a plan for their ships in the Aegean Sea to help Turkey and Greece work against the criminal groups that are smuggling migrants into the European Union.

Relations between Greece and Turkey -- both alliance members -- have traditionally been tense.

Since a deal reached on February 11 by NATO defense ministers to deploy ships to the Aegean, Greece's defense minister has accused Turkey of trying to undermine the operation.

Stoltenberg, speaking after late-night talks in Brussels, said that Greek and Turkish forces will refrain from entering each other's territorial waters or airspace. However, other NATO vessels will be able to sail in the territorial waters of both Greece and Turkey.

He said any migrants rescued from the Aegean Sea by the NATO operation will be returned to Turkey, which is receiving 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to build camps and help take in more refugees. 
 

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