Europe unsure how to handle migrant crisis
London - The European Union is facing the biggest wave of mass migration since World War II but has been unable to field a unified vision to deal with it. Southern European countries are seeking to speed up the flow of migrants northward, while nations further north are beefing up border security in preparation for additional waves of migrants.
Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, announced the number of migrants detected at EU borders in July surpassed the 100,000 mark in a single month for the first time. It marked the third consecutive monthly record, surpassing the 70,000 recorded in June.
“This is an emergency situation for Europe that requires all EU member states to step in to support the national authorities who are taking on a massive number of migrants at its borders,” said Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the migration crisis is one of the major challenges facing the European Union, even bigger than the Greek debt crisis. “The issue of asylum could be the next major European project in which we show whether we are really able to take joint action,” she said to ZDF public television on August 16th.
The unprecedented refugee influx is not just due to desperate refugees fleeing war zones across the Middle East. Approximately half of the 300,000 asylum applications Germany has received since the start of 2014 come from south-east European countries, including Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
Those migrants are joining Syrians, Afghans and others from outside of Europe fleeing violence. They use the well-worn southern European route through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, seeking passage into Hungary, which is inside the EU Schengen zone. More than 160,000 refugees have arrived in 2015 in Greece, mostly crossing from Turkey.
Although Macedonia closed its borders with Greece on August 23rd, it reopened the frontier after thousands of migrants defied a police blockade. Macedonian riot police, who were seen firing tear gas and stun grenades during the three-day blockade, are now helping refugees cross into Serbia, including setting up trains and buses.
Serbia has also devoted significant resources to speed up the passage of migrants through the country, expediting the issuance of documents to refugees to legalise their transit.
“Police are working in three shifts, papers are being issued around the clock,” Serbian Defence Minister Bratislav Gasic said on August 24th about the latest group of 5,000 refugees who entered the country. Documents allow them three days in Serbia during which most try to reach Hungary.
As for Hungary, southern Europe’s gateway to the Schengen zone, it has sped up construction of a 173-kilometre fence across its border with Serbia. More than 120,000 migrants have travelled through Budapest in 2015 — triple the number seen in 2014.
Hungary in June suspended a key EU asylum rule that requires claims by migrants to be processed in the EU country in which they first arrive, urging migrants to move to other countries in the documents-free Schengen zone.
“The boat is full,” said government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs on June 23rd.
“We all wish for a European solution but we need to protect Hungarian interests and our population.”
After making it into the Schengen zone, it is much easier for migrants to seek asylum in more affluent western and northern European countries, such as Germany.
Germany could see as many as 800,000 migrants arriving in 2015, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere acknowledged at an August 19th news conference.
Germany received a record 83,000 migrants in July, with de Maiziere predicting that record would be broken in August. It remains the top destination for refugees in Europe, receiving 43% of all asylum applications in the European Union.
“Germany cannot take 40% of all the asylum seekers forever,” de Maiziere warned.