Europe braces for new wave of refugees
London - With the conflict in Syria heating up following Russian air strikes and a renewed push by government forces in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib, Europe is bracing for a new wave of refugees.
The refugees will be facing a perilous winter at a time when Europe’s Schengen zone has tightened border controls, making it even more difficult to reach Western Europe.
European leaders met in Brussels on October 25th and agreed to a 17-point plan to deal with the flow of refugees in Southern and Eastern Europe, including strengthening borders and providing greater services to migrants, with the aim of slowing their movement through the region.
The mini-summit, which included leaders of eight Central and Eastern European countries, as well as the prime ministers of Serbia and Macedonia, also led to an agreement to provide 100,000 places in reception centres along the route from Greece towards Germany.
“We have made very clear that the policy of simply waving people through must be stopped,” European Commission President Jean- Claude Juncker said.
“The immediate imperative is to provide shelter. It cannot be that in the Europe of 2015 people are left to fend for themselves, sleeping in fields.”
But analysts are unsure whether the latest decisions represent a long-term solution or are merely a Band-Aid.
“The issue goes beyond moving on the refugees from one European country to the next. It must be dealt with at the origin in Turkey. The EU is moving to implement this approach through its most recent deal with Turkey although it remains to be seen how successful this will be,” said Omar Ahmed, a researcher for the Institute for Islamic Strategic Affairs Refugee programme.
The European Union agreed to a $3.3 billion deal with Turkey in October, with Ankara promising to clamp down on the flow of migrants to Europe in return for financial aid and fast-track access to visas. It remains unclear just how successful Turkey — the main launching point for more than 600,000 migrants into Europe in 2015 — will be in stemming the flow of refugees.
Even as the European Union agreed to house refugees headed to Central and Western Europe, more migrants continued to arrive in Greece at a rate of 9,000 a day in a recent week.
Under the deal reached in Brussels, Greece is to open centres that can house 30,000 migrants by the end of the year and the UN refugee agency agreed to provide another 20,000 spaces.
“Recent events have shown that, despite the new measures that certain EU member states have taken, these are still insufficient to deal with the scale of the continuous flow of refugees into Europe,” said Ahmed.
There are increasing fears that thousands of refugees will die during the European winter, whether they managed to make it into the Schengen zone or not.
Refugees had sought to pass through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia into the Schengen zone via Hungary but after Budapest increased border security, refugees began utilising an alternate path via Croatia and Slovenia.
“Refugees and economic migrants will always find a way to get to where they want to go. Out of desperation, anything becomes possible,” Ahmed said.
“Every day counts. Otherwise we will soon see families in cold rivers in the Balkans perish miserably,” Juncker warned.
Temperatures were predicted to be below freezing in Central and Eastern Europe amid fears that those still on the road to Schengen could freeze to death.
But even those who have passed into the Schengen zone fear the cold, as they wait in makeshift camps to hear whether their asylum applications have been accepted.
“We were freezing. We didn’t sleep. We did exercises all night long to keep warm,” said Syrian refugee Fadi, 42, in comments published by the New York Times. He was speaking from inside a refugee camp in Austria.
“I am scared. Everybody is scared. We are worried they will close the border but we are also worried about winter. We must get where we are going before the snows fall,” Ali Lolo, 35, said. He has been waiting, along with his family, in a small encampment for refugees in Croatia.
The situation is even worse for those making their way to the Schengen zone, with both sides racing against time.
“The fear of borders closing and winter approaching is just making for a rush, rush, rush,” said the UN refugee agency regional spokeswoman Mette Petersen.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 650,000 migrants are estimated to have entered Europe by sea in 2015, with that figure expected to rise significantly by the end of the year.
Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, said that at least 710,000 migrants had entered Europe during the first nine months of the year. If the rate of migration continues as is, more than 1 million migrants will have entered Europe in 2015.