Junker urged Europe to look to its history and not be afraid of his 'bold proposals for compulsory quotas for a surge in mainly Syrian refugees fleeing conflict. Photo by Vince Kessler for Reuters
By Cedric Simon for Mail and Guardian
EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled major plans on Wednesday to force the bloc to share 160 000 refugees and ease the burden on border states from the worst migration crisis since World War II.
As pressure mounted for an emergency EU summit on the issue, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the bloc to go even further, calling for a distribution of migrants with no limits on actual numbers.
Underscoring the difficulties transit countries such as Hungary face, at least 400 desperate migrants broke through police lines at the flashpoint town of Roszke on Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, yelling “No camp!” as they scattered in all directions.
With Greece, Hungary and Italy struggling to cope, Juncker urged Europe to look to its history and not be afraid of his “bold” proposals for compulsory quotas for a surge in mainly Syrian refugees fleeing conflict.
“Now is not the time to take fright, it is time for bold, determined action for the European Union,” Juncker said in his first EU State of the Union speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
He warned member states against making religious distinctions when deciding to admit refugees.
Merkel, whose country expects 800 000 asylum claims this year and has said it could take half a million annually over several years, said Europe needed a binding long-term deal for the “fair” sharing of the burden.
“We need a binding agreement on the binding distribution of refugees according to fair criteria between member states,” Merkel told the Bundestag. “We cannot just fix a ceiling and say I don’t care about anything above that.”
The migrants’ plight has touched hearts around the world, spurred by pictures last week of three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach.
In response to appeals for help from an increasingly strained Europe, Australia said it would take an additional 12 000 refugees from the Syria and Iraq conflicts and several South American countries have agreed to help.
But in Europe, mandatory quotas have faced stiff opposition, especially from eastern EU states such as Hungary, which have seen a huge surge in migrants travelling via the Western Balkans to get to Germany.
As Merkel and Juncker were speaking, hundreds of migrants broke through police lines on the Hungary-Serbia border.
Some ran towards a nearby motorway heading to Budapest, which police then closed in the latest confrontation with thousands of migrants pouring across the frontier.
“We don’t want to live any longer in the camps in Hungary or elsewhere, the conditions are horrible. It’s too cold and everything is dirty, and it smells bad,” said a young man from Damascus.
A Hungarian TV camerawoman was fired on Tuesday after footage appeared to show her kicking and tripping up migrants, including children, as they ran away from a police line during disturbances at Roszke.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said the country does not want more Muslim migrants.
Austrian officials said 6 000 migrants coming from Hungary passed through Vienna’s Westbahnhof train station in the 24 hours to Wednesday morning, with almost all travelling on to Germany.
Juncker urged EU interior ministers – who are meeting on Monday – to back his new plan for the relocation of 120 000 refugees from Hungary, Greece and Italy, and a plan first floated in May to relocate 40 000 others in Italy and Greece.
“It is 160 000 that Europe has to take into their arms, this has to be done in a compulsory way,” said Juncker.
Berlin said it was open to a special EU refugee summit after the ministers’ meeting and ahead of the next scheduled EU summit on October 14.
He announced the setting up of a €1.8-billion (about R27.5-billion) fund to help desperately poor sub-Saharan countries, the source of many migrants.
The new fund is “to address the crises in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions, the Horn of Africa and the North of Africa”, Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
“We want to help create lasting stability, for instance by creating employment opportunities in local communities, and thereby address the root causes of destabilisation, forced displacement and illegal migration,” he said.
The fund is also aimed at helping African nations improve migration management and fight traffickers, the EU said.
Most of the refugees flooding into Europe are fleeing war in Syria, but waves of so-called economic migrants from many other countries have joined the flow.
Juncker said the trust fund would be financed by available money in the EU budget as well as voluntary contributions from national governments, although only Spain had pitched in so far.
“I am counting on the contribution of member states,” Juncker said. The goal is to have the fund fully established in time for the EU-African Union summit in Malta on November 11 and 12, he added.
Under the Commission plan, Germany would take more than 31 000 migrants, France 24 000 and Spain almost 15 000.
France had already agreed to take that number, while Britain had said it would take 20 000 over five years, although they would come from refugee camps on the Syrian border and not other EU states.
EU president Donald Tusk warned on Monday of an “exodus” that would likely last “for many years”.
On the Greek holiday island of Lesbos, where around 20 000 people have been waiting in squalid conditions to travel to the mainland, a new processing centre has been set up on Monday, which handled about 14 000 people in just over 24 hours.
Tensions were high on other Aegean islands, where another 10 000 refugees are stuck waiting to reach the mainland.
“It was horrible the last three days ... There are no rooms, no hotels, no bathrooms, no beds, no anything,” said Hussam Hamzat, a 27-year-old engineer from Damascus who got his departure papers on Tuesday after an overnight wait.
More than 380 000 people have arrived in Europe by sea this year, figures from UN refugee agency UNHCR showed on Tuesday, including close to 260 000 in Greece and 121 000 in Italy.
About 85% of those coming to Europe are refugees because they have fled war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the agency says.
As Australia agreed to up its quota, offers of help came in from South America, with Venezuela saying it would accept 20 000, Brazil declaring migrants would be welcomed with “open arms” and Chile pledging to take “a large number”.
Canada’s Quebec province has said it will take 3 650 this year and Washington has said it is examining how it could provide more help.