Matthew Holehouse, Telegraph, October 25, 2015
Migrants crossing the Balkans will begin freezing to death as winter approaches, the head of European Union has said, as leaders warned the continent was “falling apart” trying to deal with the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
As leaders of eastern European countries turned on each other at a foul-tempered emergency summit in Brussels, they said the Schengen visa-free zone and even the European Union itself could be pulled apart as states threw up borders to halt the influx.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said a solution was urgently needed or thousands of refugee families facing winter temperature on the hillsides and freezing river-banks of Eastern Europe, would die.
“Every day counts,” he said. “Otherwise we will soon see families in cold rivers in the Balkans perish miserably.”
Miro Cerar, the Slovenian prime minister, said the EU was days from collapse as his country buckled under an “unbearable” influx of migrants.
“If we do not deliver some immediate and concrete actions on the ground in the next few days and weeks I believe the EU and Europe as a whole will start falling apart,” he said.
Werner Faymann, the Austrian chancellor, said Sunday’s meeting would “either consolidate the unity of Europe or watch the slow decomposition of the EU.”
In the worst refugee crisis since the second world war, more than 670,000 people have crossed into Europe this year. Some 56,000 people landed on Greek islands in just six days last week, a record influx as those fleeing Syria race to avoid spending another winter in the refugee camps along the country’s border.
But poorly dressed and under-fed, there are mounting fears they will fall victim to rougher seas and the Balkan winter that can reach minus 15C as they attempt to reach Germany and Sweden.
Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister of Greece, the first port of arrival for most migrants, said: “We are in front of a huge humanitarian crisis.”
Aid agencies and human rights groups have also weighed in on the crisis. “As winter looms, the sight of thousands of refugees sleeping rough as they make their way through Europe represents a damning indictment of the EU’s failure to offer a coordinated response to the refugee crisis,” said John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International.
Medecins Sans Frontiers, the charity, warned of frostbite and said there was an urgent need for hot food, warm shelters and washing facilities at major transit points. The UN has announced plans to distribute thousands of raincoats, tarpaulins and socks to migrants exposed in south eastern Europe.
Johannes Hahn, the EU’s ‘neighbourhood’ Commissioner, said there were now 20 million refugees in Europe’s backyard, and that regime’s new Russian- and Iranian-backed assault on Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, would produce an “immediate impact” in the numbers reaching Europe.
The United Nations High Commission for refugees said last week the renewed fighting was creating a “dynamic of displacement”. Initial statistics suggested that some of the almost eight million displaced people who had stayed inside the country were now also starting to leave.
The US and Saudi Arabia dramatically responded to Russian air-strikes in support of the Assad regime by agreeing to boost their own military and diplomatic support for the Syrian rebels, threatening an ever worsening downward spiral.
In the latest evidence of states’ sluggish response to Mr Juncker’s demands for action, the European Commission revealed last night that just eight out of 28 member states had volunteered emergency equipment and experts to address the crisis, a month after they were asked to come forward with offers.
Leaders gathered in Mr Juncker’s office to discuss plans to dispatch 400 border guards and set up new checkpoints, in exchange for frontier states dropping their policy of giving arrivals rapid passage to the borders of their neighbours.
A draft statement circulated last night called for repatriations of failed asylum seekers to Afghanistan and Pakistan to be speeded up.
However, as they arrived the leaders lashed out at each other.
Mr Cerar, the Slovenian prime minister, attacked Croatia for dumping migrants on its border without warning. He said some 12,000 people a day were arriving in the tiny state of two million.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian leader, demanded an end to Europe’s “open border policy” which he blamed for the crisis.
Mr Tsipras criticised the lack of “responsibility” from other states, and said Turkey, the launching point for many trips to Europe, should have been invited.
“Till today, it was difficult to find a solution, because a series of countries adopt a stance ‘Not in my backyard’,’” he said. He said Turkey should have been called to the talks. “The discussion will be among the countries of the corridors, but everyone knows at the end of the corridor there is an entrance,” he said.
Zoran Milanovic, the Croatian Prime Minister, attacked Mr Tsipras. “Why doesn’t Greece control its maritime half with Turkey?” he said.
Meanwhile, the bodies continued to wash up on the beaches of the Mediterranean.
A woman and two children drowned when an inflatable dinghy carrying 63 migrants hit rocks off the Greek island of Lesbos, Greek authorities said. Another seven people were missing.
Another 43 bodies of drowned migrants and refugees were recovered off the coasts of Libya yesterday as rough seas plagued smugglers’ boats in the Mediterranean.
Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian prime minister, said he was prepared for “hard, not very pleasant” talks, adding: “What are we going to do with hundreds of thousands of these people?”
With Mr Juncker warning that the Schengen agreement was at risk from unilateral border closures, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia warned they would not accept being turned into a “buffer zone” for the influx of migrants.
“If Germany and Austria and other countries close their borders, we will be ready to also close our borders at that very same moment,” said Boyko Borisov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister.
Austria’s interior minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, attacked neighbouring Germany.
“Germany is currently accepting simply too few refugees”, she told the Kronen Zeitung, which reported that 6,500 refugees were arriving a day. “We have reached the limit.”
She said if the influx into Greece was not halted, a Slovenian plan to build a fence along the border with Croatia “is to be expected”.
But in Germany, there were reports of alarm among state security officials that Angela Merkel’s refugee policy was too generous. She is facing a backlash for offering asylum to all Syrians who arrive.
According to Welt am Sonntag, an unsigned discussion paper circulated among security official warns: “We are importing Islamic extremism, Arabic anti-semitism, the national and ethnic conflicts of other nations and other concepts of rights and society.”
It warns of an extremist backlash among the “mainstream middle class”. “We will see many people turning away from this constitutional state.”