EU, Balkan states set for tough talks over handling of refugee crisis
Three men are silhouetted in the light as they wait with other migrants and refugees to be transported to a refugee center after crossing the Croatian-Slovenian border near Rigonce, Slovenia, on October 24, 2015. (AFP/Jure Makovec)
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Ten leaders from the European Union and the Balkans were set to meet Sunday in a bid to better tackle the tide of migrants and asylum seekers passing through their countries, but with disagreements abounding on who should do more.
The surge of refugees along the western Balkan route - used to move from Turkey to wealthy northern European countries - has shown no sign of abating despite falling pre-winter temperatures.
Nearly 10,000 people entered Slovenia on Saturday, drawing the total to around 62,000 since Hungary sealed its border to migrants mid-October, the STA news agency reported. Slovenia is the smallest nation to have inadvertently joined the route and has been buckling under the influx.
Bottlenecks have left migrants out in the mud, rain and cold - many of them women and children fleeing the war in Syria. The human rights organization Amnesty International said it found hundreds of people sleeping in Slovenia last week "on the bare ground, with no shelter over their heads and very little to keep them warm."
"The countries along the western Balkan route have to ensure orderly processes and circumstances," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who convened Sunday's crisis talks, told the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
"Every day counts. Otherwise, we will soon see families perishing wretchedly in cold Balkan rivers," he added.
EU leaders Werner Faymann of Austria, Boyko Borisov of Bulgaria, Zoran Milanovic of Croatia, Angela Merkel of Germany, Alexis Tsipras of Greece, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Klaus Iohannis of Romania and Miro Cerar of Slovenia will attend the talks in Brussels.
They are to be joined by Macedonian President Gorge Ivanov and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, as well as UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
The commission drafted a 16-point plan for the talks that proposes stepped-up coordination, more shelter and services for needy migrants, and better border controls, including the deployment of support teams to Slovenia and a new mission at the Greek frontier with Albania and Macedonia, according to a draft seen by dpa.
But the point likely to prove most controversial is a request for the leaders to agree that "a policy of waving through refugees to a neighbouring country is not acceptable."
With most asylum seekers set on reaching wealthier European countries, the nations on the Balkan route have mainly shuffled migrants along.
"You cannot just walk people through a country and let everyone move on to Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told local media on Saturday.
But Milanovic said ahead of Sunday's talks that Croatia is not ready to take in refugees instead of passing them to Slovenia, dismissing the plan prepared by the commission as "completely unrealistic."
"We will not let our populations become a buffer area for the refugee flows," Borisov added on Saturday after preparatory talks with Romania and Serbia, threatening that those three countries could close their borders to stem the migration flow.
"Someone must reach a comprehensive solution, but it cannot break across our backs," Vucic said.
Greek Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas also argued during a talk show on Saturday evening that his country cannot become a "giant refugee camp."
Eastern European leaders have pushed for better protection of the borders in Greece - the main point of entry in the EU for the almost 700,000 migrants estimated to have arrived by sea this year. It is the largest population movement seen in Europe since World War II.