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With E.U. Paralyzed, 10 Nations Try to Stem Migrant Flow
Austria and nine Balkan states on Wednesday agreed on several measures to choke off the flow of refugees from Greece, effectively imposing their own response to the migrant crisis while the European Union has been paralyzed over what to do.
The moves, by the foreign and interior ministers of the 10 countries, come amid Europe's preparations for another surge in people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond as winter wanes and the weather turns warmer.
The practical effect of the steps they agreed on during a meeting in Vienna on Wednesday will probably be to keep more of the migrants in Greece, the primary point of entry into the European Union for people coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other troubled countries.
Among the measures was an agreement to grant entry to the 10 countries only to those "in proven need of protection," which would essentially limit passage to Iraqis and Syrians and exclude Afghans and people from countries where the main problems are economic.
The ministers also agreed to set standards for what kind of information migrants would need to provide to be registered in their countries, to recognize formally that each state was responsible for protecting its borders, and to offer support to Macedonia, whose border with Greece has become the latest focal point for migrants trying to make their way to Germany and other prosperous Northern European nations. The Greek police forcibly removed Afghan protesters from train tracks along the border with Macedonia on Tuesday.
The Austrian interior minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, said her country would send up to 20 more police officers to help Macedonia, which has also received support from Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia and offers of more assistance from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland.
The Hungarian government, which has been among the most hostile to migrants, also announced plans to hold a referendum on whether the country should accept European commitments on taking in refugees.
"It is not possible to process unlimited numbers of migrants and applicants for asylum," said a declaration issued by the meeting attendees, which included European Union members — Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia — as well as Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The document cited "limited resources and reception capacities, potential consequences for internal security and social cohesion, as well as challenges with regard to integration."
Austria recently capped the number of entries and asylum applications it would accept each day, a move that rippled through Europe and down to Macedonia, which ultimately tightened controls along its border with Greece.
That move stranded thousands of migrants hoping to head north from Greece, and Austrian officials said the 10 countries felt compelled to act immediately even if they favored a European Union solution to the crisis.
"Austria must reduce the influx, because we are simply overstretched," Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian foreign minister, told reporters after the meeting.
Austria joined Germany last summer in throwing open its borders to Syrians and others stranded in Hungary. That solidarity evaporated in recent weeks after the government in Vienna announced a limit of 37,500 refugees this year and caps on the number of people admitted daily: 80 to apply for asylum in Austria or 3,200 to move on to Germany. The meeting did not yield an agreement that would impose a similar cap in all of the countries on the migrant trail.
"We have to reduce the influx now," said Ms. Mikl-Leitner, Austria's interior minister. "This is a question of survival for the European Union."
Austria's center-left, center-right coalition government is under strong pressure from the far-right Freedom Party, which has been performing well in recent polls. National elections are not scheduled until next year.
Choking off entry to Macedonia has left thousands of migrants bottled up in Greece, which sharply protested that it had not been invited to the Vienna meeting.
In Athens, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras criticized Austria and the Balkan states for their actions, which force Greece to deal with thousands of refugees who have no way forward to Europe or back to their homelands.
"We will not tolerate being turned into a warehouse of souls," Mr. Tsipras said on Greek television. "We will not agree to any further deals," he added, if the burden is not shared in the European Union.
"The handling of the refugee crisis by the E.U. is disappointing," he said.
Mr. Tsipras, who addressed the Greek Parliament on the refugee issue on Wednesday night, spoke by telephone with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. He called for Greece to be supported in its efforts to deal with the migrants, for an intensification of efforts to honor existing European agreements, and for the deployment as soon as possible of a NATO mission to reduce migrant flows by stopping human traffickers.
Continuing on Greek television, Mr. Tsipras said, "Either deals are kept, or they don't exist."
Noting that the European Union's 28 foreign ministers had met three weeks ago in Amsterdam, with Greece at the table, Mr. Kurz, the Austrian foreign minister, said, "I had to experience that there is no willingness from the Greek side to reduce the influx."
In Germany, where Ms. Merkel is under mounting pressure to introduce limits on the influx of refugees after taking in more than one million people last year, officials were mostly silent about the Vienna meeting.
"The government is still working for an all-European solution," a deputy government spokeswoman, Christiane Wirtz, said at a weekly news conference. "That is the top priority for the government."
She added that Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière continued to be in close contact with his Austrian counterpart.
The tone was different in Hungary, where the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban set in motion plans for a referendum challenging quotas set by the European Union to resettle 160,000 refugees across the Continent. The vote is not likely until fall.
The Hungarian government has been campaigning intensely against the quota system, and it voted against the plan along with the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia at the height of the migrant crisis in September. Hungary and Slovakia have filed lawsuits to challenge the quota system at the European Court of Justice, the judicial body of the European Union.
Mr. Orban, at a news conference, depicted the push for a referendum as a safeguard for democracy.
"We can't make, against the will of the European people, decisions that will seriously alter their lives and the lives of future generations," he said. "Nobody so far has asked Europeans whether they want, accept or actually refuse the introduction of compulsory quotas."
Imposing quotas of refugees without consulting voters is an abuse of power, Mr. Orban said. "The quotas would redefine Europe's cultural, ethnic and religious image," he said. "The view of the Hungarian government is that neither the European Union, nor Brussels, nor European leaders, nor any European body have the mandate for that."
[Source: By Alison Smale, The New York Times, Berlin, 24Feb16]
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