Eleven leaders from the European Union and the Balkans promised Sunday to limit the uncontrolled tide of migrants and asylum seekers flowing through their territories, amid fears that the quickly approaching winter will start claiming casualties.
Europe is contending with its largest population movement since World War II, with almost 700,000 migrants and asylum seekers arriving by sea this year – many of them from war-torn Syria.
Tens of thousands have been crossing the western Balkans to make their way from Turkey to wealthy northern European countries such as Germany and Sweden. The nations along the migratory route have largely passed on people with little coordination, leading to recriminations and tensions between neighbours.
Ensuing bottlenecks have left men, women and children stranded in the mud, cold and rain.
“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,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said early Monday, after hosting seven hours of crisis talks.
“The pictures we have seen in the last days did not correspond to our values,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel added. “Europe has to show that it is a continent of values and a continent of solidarity.”
In a joint statement, Merkel and the leaders of Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia declared that “a policy of waving through refugees without informing a neighbouring country is not acceptable.”
The statement said under the current circumstances, the countries would discourage the movement of refugees or migrants to the border of another country in the region, and they pledged to provide better shelter.
Whether the promise is implemented remains to be seen. Some leaders had appeared reluctant ahead of Sunday’s talks. Croatia’s Zoran Milanovic had spoken out against keeping refugees, while Bulgaria’s Boyko Borisov expressed concern about becoming “a buffer area for the refugee flows.”
Juncker said the leaders all committed to “refrain from taking unilateral decisions whose effects are inevitably borne by others.”
Slovenia has in recent days been buckling under the pressure, after Hungary’s decision in mid-October to seal its border diverted the migration flow to the small nation of 2 million inhabitants.
As the leaders were meeting, Slovenia announced that it was expecting a record 15,000 migrants to arrive from Croatia on Sunday. Prime Minister Miro Cerar spoke of an “absolutely unbearable” pace of arrivals, pleading for a common solution that would prevent the EU from “falling apart.”
The leaders promised to come to the country’s aid with the deployment of 400 European police officers and “essential equipment” within a week, their statement said.
Support is also foreseen for Greece. It has been the main point of entry in the EU for the almost 700,000 migrants estimated to have arrived by sea this year, but has also faced criticism for not processing them correctly.
Fingerprinting and registration support from the EU border agency Frontex for Greece should be “significantly strengthened,” the leaders’ statement said.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR and Greece will provide “rent subsidies and host family programmes” so that 20,000 new migrant-reception spots can be created in the country, on top of 30,000 due by the end of the year.
They would be used for arriving people to be screened and identified as either economic migrants or asylum seekers qualifying for international protection. The latter would then be relocated to other EU member states under an already agreed redistribution scheme.
The EU and Balkan leaders also promised to work with UNHCR to improve their own migrant-reception capacities, noting that 50,000 spots along their route “would allow for a better and more predictable management of the flow.”
It will take some time for reception capacities to be improved, but UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres expressed hope in Brussels that migrant movements would in the meantime be less “chaotic.”
Increased communication about the flows, stepped-up cooperation on border controls and access to EU aid are also meant to improve the situation. International financial institutions are expected to discuss their possible contributions next week.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic spoke of “small steps forward,” but expressed confidence that the leaders would overcome their disputes and “blame games.”
An EU source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there had been a temptation to say the problems are somebody else’s fault. “We have to make it stop,” the source said.