VIENNA — Overwhelmed by a wave of refugees and what they call indecision in the European Union, Austria and its southern neighbours along the Balkan migrant route agreed to tighter border controls at a meeting Wednesday — and warned that sooner or later they will have to shut their doors entirely.
Greece, the first point of landing for most of the migrants arriving by boat from Turkey, was not invited to the meeting and responded angrily by threatening to block decisions at a forthcoming EU migration summit if sharing of the refugee burden is not made obligatory for member states.
The EU has set up a scheme to share 160,000 migrants arriving in Greece and Italy. Even that would be only a fraction of the total numbers, but so far, barely 600 people have been relocated, and only some EU partners have offered places for them – fewer than 5,000 spots in all.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said that from now on Greece “will not assent to agreements” unless all its partners in the EU are forced to participate proportionately in the relocation and resettlement of refugees. A senior government official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, clarified that Tsipras was specifically referring to a March 7 summit on immigration.
Tsipras lashed out at EU member states that “not only erect fences on their borders but at the same time do not accept to take in a single refugee.”
Austria has recently capped the number of asylum-seekers it will accept daily at its borders to 80, and limited the number of refugees it will let pass through the country. That has led to more border restrictions being introduced further south, hurting countries along the route, including Greece.
Playing off warnings that the restrictions will lead to disastrous accumulations of refugees on borders along the route, Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner called for “a chain reaction of reason.”
“We need measures that lead to a … a domino effect. We must reduce the flow of migrants now,” she said. “Because the refugee question can become a question of survival for the European Union.”
At the meeting in Vienna Wednesday, interior and foreign ministers from EU members Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria, as well as Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia issued a declaration that struck the same tone. It cited “limited resources and reception capacities, potential consequences for internal security and social cohesion as well as challenges with regard to integration.”
“It is not possible to process unlimited numbers of migrants and applicants for asylum,” it said, suggesting that a full stop in the future was inevitable.
Noting that the right to asylum does not include choosing “a country of preference,” Wednesday’s declaration called for common standards of registration and entry criteria for those with realistic chances for asylum.
“The migration flow along the Western Balkans route needs to be substantially reduced,” said the 19-point document. It declared that all nations at the conference will refuse entry to all “without travel documents, with forged or falsified documents or migrants making wrongful statements about their nationality or identity.”
It urged all EU nations that have signed on to the Schengen agreement on open borders to refuse entry both to those who do not satisfy the entry conditions and to those who do but do not use the opportunity to apply for asylum.
Athens objects to what it sees as Austrian-led attempts to leave it to handle the burden of those arriving alone.
“Our country’s non-invitation to this meeting is perceived as a non-friendly act, as it creates the impression that some, in our absence, want to initiate decisions that affect us directly,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said. “(This is) yet another extra-institutional initiative that violates the letter and the spirit of the treaties of the European Union and international law on refugees.”
But Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told reporters that a meeting of EU foreign ministers three weeks ago showed that the Greeks were “not in the slightest ready to reduce the (refugee) influx.” Instead, he said, they “are only interested in transporting the refugees as fast as possible to central Europe.”
The EU says Austrian caps on refugee numbers are illegal, while Germany – the economic powerhouse of the 28-nation EU and the destination for many of the people crossing Europe – is sending conflicting signals on the subject.
Indirectly criticizing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mikl-Leitner, said that on the one hand German politicians “support the policy of the open door, while on the other they demand from Austria to stop all who want to go to Germany.”
She said Austria would not hesitate to impose its cap of 37,500 asylum-seekers this year. While Austria is still in favour of a common EU solution to the migrant problem, the EU needs interim short-term “national measures” to staunch the flow, said Mikl-Leitner.
Austria has been dealing with more than 90,000 applications for asylum since the start of the influx of people last year – the second highest number in the EU proportionate to the country’s population. Its immigration problems are minor, however, compared to those of Greece, which has seen more than 102,500 people cross the sea to its islands so far this year. More than 1 million people reached Europe last year – over 80 per cent of them landing in Greece first.
As a result of the stricter transit rules introduced this week, Greek migration minister Ioannis Mouzalas said he expects the number of stranded immigrants in his country to reach “tens of thousands.”
Thousands of people have been waiting at the Idomeni area of the border with Macedonia to cross northwards. Macedonian authorities have been allowing only Syrians and Iraqis to cross, and those at a very slow pace. But the influx of people reaching eastern Aegean Greek islands from the Turkish mainland continues unabated.
In central Athens, several hundred Afghan migrants, who have been barred from crossing into Macedonia, camped out in an inner city square, lying on blankets or pieces of cardboard.
“I got here yesterday, but we haven’t tried to go to the border,” said Aman Golestani, a 22-year-old psychology student. “I don’t know what I’ll do now … We just hope the border will open.”
Golestani, wearing a tracksuit top of the German soccer champions Bayern Munich, said he was afraid to return home.
“The Taliban are killing people like us, young people who are trying to get an education,” he said.