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Pressure mounts on EU leaders to deal with refugee crisis

Published 20/01/2016

Migrants walk from the Macedonian border into Serbia (AP)
Migrants walk from the Macedonian border into Serbia (AP)

Pressure is building on EU leaders to overcome their differences and tackle the refugee emergency amid criticism that Europe's migrant strategy is unravelling fast.

The head of the EU's executive commission expressed concern that a summit of EU leaders on February 18 and 19 would be too focused on keeping Britain inside the bloc, and he recommended that government heads give equal focus to the challenges posed by the migrant influx.

"I'm rather worried that we won't have enough time to tackle the refugee question in sufficient depth," European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said.

His call came as countries in northern Europe, the preferred destination of many of the more than one million people who arrived last year seeking sanctuary or jobs, began calling for caps on the number of migrants that should be allowed to enter.

European Council president Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summits, warned earlier this week that the EU's passport-free travel area could break apart if the migrant strategy is not sorted out within two months.

The commission has floated a plan aimed at coping with Europe's biggest refugee emergency in more than half a century. Ideas include a relocation plan to distribute refugees among EU nations, which would be strung out over two years, plus a fast-track visa and EU membership process for Turkey in exchange for stopping people leaving for Europe.

The commission also advocates tougher measures to return people who do not qualify for asylum, and has boosted funding of the Frontex border agency.

Mr Juncker lamented the lack of national action, saying "we would do better if we implemented what has been decided".

The mass arrivals last year, mostly through Greece from Turkey, overwhelmed border authorities and reception centres and raised tensions between EU neighbours as they struggled to respond.

More than 2,000 people are still arriving daily, according to EU figures, and numbers are expected to accelerate as spring arrives.

A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency said that around 2,000 migrants continue to cross from Macedonia into Serbia daily, even with temperatures plunging to a low of minus 19C this week.

Meanwhile, Austria's deputy chancellor, Reinhold Mitterlehner, was quoted as saying that his conservative party wants to cap migrant entries to no more than 40,000 per year.

Close to 90,000 refugees applied for asylum last year in Austria.

Germany's president, Joachim Gauck, called for limits to the number of people entering, saying that ceilings are "morally acceptable" if Europe is to continue helping those in need.

Speaking at a conference in Davos, Switzerland, Mr Gauck said the EU's rules on freedom of movement throughout the bloc "can only be guaranteed if movement is controlled at the external borders".

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