Aug 31, 2015 10:48 PM

EU struggles for answers as migrant influx raises tensions

The Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) French and German leaders reminded other European countries Monday of their shared responsibility toward refugees, as one official blamed harsh government policy for the deaths of dozens of migrants crammed into a truck.

An emergency meeting was called for Sept. 14 on the migrant crisis in which more than 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean this year often those fleeing Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hundreds have drowned in capsized boats, and 71 people were found locked in the back of a truck on the Budapest-Vienna highway.

"Europe as a whole must move and its states must share the responsibility for refugees seeking asylum," said Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose country is expected to see 800,000 asylum applications this year.

"Universal civil rights so far have been closely linked with Europe and its history it was one of the founding motives of the European Union," she said. "If Europe fails on the question of refugees, this close connection with universal civil rights ... will be destroyed and it won't be the Europe we want."

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, announcing plans for a refugee center on the English Channel port of Calais, where thousands of migrants have been gathering trying to make their way to Britain, said firmness must be tempered with humanity.

"The responsibility of us all is to make sure the right to asylum ... is respected everywhere. One cannot avoid it with barbed wire," Valls said in Calais, where an estimated 3,000 migrants live in a squalid, makeshift camp.

The influx has raised tensions among neighbors, with Greece and Italy accused of failing to stop the migrants from moving farther north. Germany's decision to allow Syrians to apply for protection there has troubled Hungary, which thinks the move is attracting more people to Europe.

Walls have been erected, razor wire unspooled, and border security stepped up, threatening passport-free travel among European nations that also permit the smooth passage of goods, services and business. About 160,000 migrants have been detained this year in Hungary, which has erected a fence on its border with Serbia.

After the 71 dead were found Thursday in the back of a truck that apparently had been abandoned by people smugglers, Austria stepped up vehicle inspections at the Hungarian border, creating a traffic jam on the highway.

William Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organization for Migration, said in an interview with The Associated Press that countries blocking migrants from boarding trains drive them to dangerous options.

"If you as they have just done in Hungary if you deny them, although they have a paid ticket and you don't let them to get on board, you push them right into the hands of smugglers," Swing said, alluding to those found dead in Austria. "So they get into vans and into trucks, and they die."

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs stressed his country was protecting external EU borders, not just its own.

"If we do not succeed in restoring order and legality here, illegal migration including that of refugees, who are truly in need of protection will become completely unmanageable," Kovacs said.

At Budapest's Keleti train terminal Monday, hundreds of migrants boarded trains headed west to Austria and Germany, without apparent police intervention. In past months, Hungarian police, sometimes acting with colleagues from Germany and Austria, have removed migrants without the necessary travel documents from the trains.

One train with about 400 migrants arrived in Germany in the evening, first stopping in the southern Bavarian city of Rosenheim, where about half got off for registration, while the rest continued on to Munich, the dpa news agency reported. Typically, refugees are put into temporary housing until they can apply for asylum.

Swing, a longtime U.S. diplomat, lamented a "fear factor" espoused by some politicians and said his 157-member intergovernmental body is ready to help the EU better manage the influx.

Millions fleeing the conflict in Syria are being housed in Turkey. Lebanon and Jordan have also accepted hundreds of thousands.

In contrast, the 28 EU nations, representing a half-billion people and the world's most powerful trading bloc, have proved unable to share 40,000 Syrians and Eritreans arriving in Greece and Italy.

Slovakia, which along with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland blocked the sharing plan, rejected criticism it is not doing enough to help.

Prime Minister Robert Fico said Monday that Slovakia "will never agree" to such a system. He said that most of migrants are coming for economic reasons and should be sent home.

The EU's executive Commission wants nations to fully apply asylum laws, build capacity to house those in need, create ways for people to come legally, and send home more quickly those who don't qualify.

But its appeals have largely fallen on deaf ears, and EU institutions are powerless to enforce change. Economic problems, the rise of the far right, anti-migrant public sentiment and a lack of reception capacity are some of the reasons cited.

"There are countries that are reluctant, due to their history or policies, etc. So we're having trouble convincing everyone," Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said in Calais.

He said the EU must work faster to set up special migrant processing centers in Greece and Italy to help authorities quickly identify those in need of protection and distinguish them from economic migrants fleeing poverty.

He also said the EU's executive Commission would produce a list of countries deemed "safe" enough that their citizens would not be eligible for asylum, such as EU membership candidate countries in the Balkans.

Both moves followed pressure from Germany, France and Britain for faster, coordinated EU action.

Sergio Carrera, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, believes some nations are simply shirking their responsibilities.

"No one wants to take charge," he said. "Countries like Greece and Italy, through which people enter first, are facing serious capacity issues" and can't process the numbers arriving.

Emphasis has been placed on cracking down on human traffickers, but they have become sophisticated and demand for them is high.

"It is almost impossible to take effective action against the smuggling networks," said Tuesday Reitano, expert at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. "All the evidence now shows that you have to look at demand-based solutions, actually reducing the number of people who want to come to Europe."


Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary. Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.


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