Tensions reached a boiling point between the European states worst affected by the refugee crisis ahead of a meeting of Balkan states in Vienna today (24 February), as new figures showed no let-up in the influx of asylum seekers.
With refugee arrivals in Europe surpassing 110,000 in the first two months of the year alone, the United Nations warned that border restrictions being imposed by some states could cause chaos.
A diplomatic spat broke out between Greece and Austria, while Vienna lashed out at Germany’s “contradictory” refugee policy.
The European Union voiced concerns about the risk of a “humanitarian crisis,” particularly in Greece, which lies on the front line of Europe’s greatest refugee challenge since World War II.
Thousands of people have been left stranded in Greece after Macedonia abruptly closed its border to Afghans, creating a fresh bottleneck on the Balkans route to northern Europe.
Athens also hit out at Vienna for failing to invite Greek representatives to a meeting on the crisis with ministers from western Balkan states on Wednesday.
The meeting includes interior and foreign ministers from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
Greece’s foreign ministry blasted the meeting as “one-sided and not at all friendly”, and has accused Austria of undermining efforts to reach a joint European response to the crisis.
Greece’s Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas said the move was anti-European, violating decisions taken by the EU.
“It wounds Europe and will burden our country with something it does not deserve. The Balkan route was a humanitarian corridor. It could close after consultations and not by turning one country against the other.”
Commission not invited
The European Commission was not invited to the Austrian mini-summit either. Spokesperson for internal affairs Natacha Bertaud stopped short of naming Austria, but said the EU executive had repeatedly called EU rules on asylum to be respected.
The Commission takes the view that the number of asylum-seekers cannot be capped, because countries have the obligation to accept people in need of international protection. The EU executive also considers that it should be in charge of the coordination of the Western Balkan route, following decisions of a mini summit held on 25 October.
“We are concerned by the fact that some member states are acting outside the agreed framework for the Western Balkan route cooperation. We believe member states should work together other, and not against each other in this respect,” he said.
The Visegrad group (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary) have also devised alternative back-up plan to stop refugees at Greece’s borders with Bulgaria and Macedonia, in case present measures prove ineffective.
Austria retorted that it was a “fixed” meeting format and its summary would be available to EU interior and justice ministers when they meet on Thursday.
Austria lashed out at Germany’s “contradictory” refugee policy after Berlin sharply criticised a daily limit introduced by Vienna on migrants registering and passing through the Alpine country.
The Austrian government announced yesterday (20 January) that it would cap the number of people allowed to claim asylum this year, and that it would send excess refugees back, or deport them to the neighbouring countries through which they came.
“Germany should decide which number is acceptable to it,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann told reporters. A statement added that he wished for a “respectful treatment of Austria’s political decisions”.
New figures published by the International Organization for Migration showed 102,547 people had arrived in Greece and another 7,507 in Italy so far this year.
Another 413 lost their lives trying, including 321 who perished on the journey to Greece, the IOM said.
The Mediterranean was the scene of another tragedy on Tuesday (22 February), with Italy saying it had found four bodies off the coast of Libya and rescued more than 700 migrants.
Amnesty International on Wednesday (23 February) hit out at Europe’s “shameful” response to the crisis, saying most EU countries had “simply decided that the protection of their borders is more important than the protection of the rights of refugees”.
In the latest in a series of measures by European states, Macedonia closed its border to Afghans and introduced more stringent document checks for Syrians and Iraqis seeking to travel to northern and western Europe.
The move caused a bottleneck at the Greek-Macedonian border – where nearly 4,000 people were waiting to get through on Tuesday – and forced Greek police to keep hundreds of others from travelling to the frontier.
On the Greek side, Afghan families boarded nearly a dozen buses for the long trip back to the capital, where they will be temporarily housed in relocation camps, local police said.
‘What Europe have we built?’
“We are concerned about the developments along the Balkan route and the humanitarian crisis that might unfold in certain countries, especially in Greece,” EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Dutch Migration Minister Klaas Dijkhoff said in a statement.
Their sentiment was echoed by Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN refugee agency.
“I am very worried about the news that we are getting about increasing closures of European borders along the Balkans route because that will create further chaos and confusion,” Grandi said on a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos.
“We have said to European states… that they should take more refugees through legal ways, to accept them directly so that they don’t go through smuggling rings,” he said.
“If Europe can’t do this, what Europe have we built?”
The arrival last year of more than one million refugees and migrants on Europe’s shores, many fleeing war, poverty and persecution, has caused a chain reaction of border clampdowns, in a blow to the EU’s border-free Schengen zone.
Skopje’s move followed decisions by countries further up the migrant route to turn back groups of Afghans.
“Everything we are doing is in coordination with the agreement from Zagreb,” a senior government source in Skopje told AFP.
On 18 February, police chiefs from Austria, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia agreed to create a joint refugee registration point on the Greek-Macedonian border.