Refugees in France’s ‘Jungle’ camp, and on the Greece-Macedonian border, were tear-gassed by border police today (29 February), a week before EU leaders meet to discuss the migration crisis.
French authorities began dismantling half of the camp in the northern port city of Calais on Monday, a week before EU leader meet with Turkey in Brussels to discuss their response to the crisis that has seen multiple member states reinstate border controls in the passport free Schengen area.
Meanwhile, hundreds of refugees on Monday tried to break through a border fence into Macedonia from Greece, where more than 6,000 people are stranded.
Macedonian police fired tear gas as a group of some 300 Iraqi and Syrian protesters forced their way through a Greek police cordon and raced towards a railway track where they tried to get through the barbed wire marking the frontier between the two countries.
“Open the borders!” they shouted, prompting police to fire volleys of tear gas which prevented them from crossing. The refugees used a home-made battering ram to try and knock down the fence.
With Austria and Balkan states capping the numbers of migrants entering their territory, there has been a swift buildup along the Greece-Macedonia border with Athens warning that the number of people “trapped” on its soil could reach as many as 70,000 by next month.
Video footage shared on social media appeared to show tear gas also being fired in the Calais shantytown, where thousands have gathered in the hope of sneaking aboard lorries and ferries to Britain.
Local authorities, who have promised that no one will be evacuated by force, said 3,700 people live in the camp, and that between 800 and 1,000 will be affected by the eviction.
But charities said a recent census they conducted counted at least 3,450 people in the southern part alone, including 300 unaccompanied children.
EU leaders will meet with Turkey in Brussels for a special summit on the refugee crisis. Many refugees reach the EU by travelling through Turkey into Greece. Talks will centre on an action plan to stem those flows.
The EU and Turkey will meet in March to push forward a deal to stem the migration crisis, European Council President Donald Tusk said yesterday (18 February).
On Sunday (28 February), German Chancellor Angel Merkel lashed out at a raft of restrictions imposed by Austria and the Balkan states, saying they risked plunging debt-ridden Greece into refugee chaos.
“We can’t just abandon this country,” she said in a television interview, pointing the finger at Austria, whose introduction of restrictions on February 19 triggered a domino effect.
“When one insists on his border, the other suffers. That’s not my Europe.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday (28 February) defended her open-door policy for migrants, rejecting any limit on the number of refugees allowed into her country despite divisions within her government.
Austria under fire
The build-up at the Idomeni camp, which can accomodate up to 1,500 people but is currently sheltering more than 6,000, began in earnest last week after Macedonia began refusing entry to Afghans and imposed stricter controls on Syrians and Iraqis.
EU members Slovenia and Croatia quickly followed suit along with Serbia, with all four states imposing a daily limit of 580 migrants.
The spate of border closures was sparked by Austria’s announcement it would accept no more than 80 asylum claims per day and cap the numbers of those seeking to cross its territory, in a move Merkel said was responsible for the current buildup.
“Because Austria decided on a limit of 80 per day, and not one more, we have reached today’s situation,” she told public broadcaster ARD, saying the move, and the subsequent border restrictions in the Balkans, had left Greece in the lurch.
“Do you seriously believe that all the euro states that last year fought all the way to keep Greece in the eurozone – and we were the strictest – can one year later allow Greece to, in a way, plunge into chaos?” she said.
But Austria quickly hit back at criticism of its tougher migrant policy, describing it as “absurd”.
“We don’t have to take criticism from anyone on any side,” Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told the Austria Press Agency of the move, which has sparked a bitter standoff with Athens and come under fire from the European Union.
“Apparently, for some, the European solution (to the crisis) is for all (migrants) to mass in Austria,” she said.
Austria says that its measures and those of Balkan countries, which are only allowing 580 migrants to enter per day, are necessary because efforts towards a common EU policy have failed so far.
Austria, which took in 90,000 asylum-seekers in 2015 and saw almost 10 times as many pass through, last week hosted a migration conference for Balkan countries at which it persuaded them to also impose tougher controls.
Neither Greece nor Germany were invited to the talks, underscoring the deep rifts within the EU as it faces the biggest influx of migrants since 1945.
On Monday, government ministers attend an extraordinary meeting to piece together an “emergency” plan to tackle the problem, Greek media said.
“As the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’ start, the French authorities must ensure that they don’t bulldoze through the rights of refugees and migrants, many of whom are likely to be extremely vulnerable,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director.
“While the current situation in Calais is clearly unsustainable, evictions are no solution to a crisis on which the French and British governments have turned their backs for years. The authorities need to look at this situation holistically: not just out of concern for border-management, housing and hygiene. Each of these individuals has needs and rights that must be protected.
“The French authorities must ensure those evicted are meaningfully consulted and that all their options are considered. This includes facilitating access to asylum proceedings in France and visas to the UK for those with family members there, or other good grounds for admission. Although it’s taking place across the Channel, this is not an issue that the UK can wash its hand of.”