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EU Proposals on Migrants Draw Fire

  • Luis Ramirez

A woman holds a baby inside a shelter at the Greek northern point of Idomeni, Greece, May 3, 2016.

A woman holds a baby inside a shelter at the Greek northern point of Idomeni, Greece, May 3, 2016.

The European Commission has unveiled details of what analysts say is a desperate plan to deal with Europe's severest migrant crisis in decades.

The plan includes a "fairness mechanism" requiring nations to accept a set number of refugees or pay a de-facto fine. The plan has drawn immediate fire from central and eastern European nations that have defied previous calls from the European Union for all members to accept a share of refugees.

EC officials said the plan to overhaul the EU asylum system seeks to ensure that each member state handles a proportionate share of the flow of migrants, which reached one million last year.

The proposals, including a recommendation to remove restrictions on visa-free travel for Turkish nationals, will be up for a vote by the European Parliament in June.

Nations like Poland and Hungary have refused to accept large numbers of Muslim migrants, citing concerns that doing so would destabilize their largely homogeneous societies.

A child drinks water from a pipe on the platform of a train station which was turned into a makeshift camp crowded by migrants and refugees at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, May 2, 2016.

A child drinks water from a pipe on the platform of a train station which was turned into a makeshift camp crowded by migrants and refugees at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, May 2, 2016.

In announcing the details, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said countries should not be allowed to pick and choose how they respond to a crisis that affects all of the European Union.

"There is no a la carte solidarity in this Union," Timmermans said Wednesday at a news conference in Brussels.

Most migrants aim to reach Germany and Sweden, but it is frontline countries like Greece and Italy that have borne the heaviest burden of the new arrivals, and their resources have been stretched.

Creating quotas

The EC proposals seek to distribute responsibility by establishing quotas. If a country receives more than 50 percent of its assigned number of asylum seekers, it would have the option to send them to other nations.

Countries that opt not to receive migrants would be required to pay to help those that do accept them.

"All member states will be required to contribute and show solidarity," Timmermans said, adding "this may also take the form of financial solidarity."

The amounts are estimated at nearly $300,000 per migrant.

Ministers of the Visegrad Group of central European countries that include the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — meeting Wednesday in Prague — immediately rejected the set of proposals.

"It is blackmailing," said Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto. He called the plan to impose quotas "a dead-end street."

Migrants and refugees line up for food distribution at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, May 2, 2016.

Migrants and refugees line up for food distribution at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, May 2, 2016.

"I'm still wondering if it's a serious proposal, because it sounds like an idea announced during the April Fool's Day," Poland's foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, told reporters in Prague.

The overhaul of the asylum rules and the decision to recommend the lifting of EU visa requirements for Turkish nationals are part of an urgent attempt to deal with the crisis and keep a March agreement between the EU and Turkey from failing.

In that agreement, the regional grouping committed to paying billions of dollars for Ankara to take back and accommodate migrants deported from Greece. The EU also promised movement on Turkey's longstanding efforts for its citizens to gain visa-free access to the member countries.

Turkish leaders had threatened to abandon the agreement if the EU did not fulfill its commitments.

EU officials call the agreement a success, saying the number of people attempting to make the dangerous crossing on the Aegean Sea has dropped significantly to an average of 63 a day, down from thousands just a few months ago.

Syrian impact

A large number of the migrants are Syrians, and analysts say the long-term solution to the crisis depends on how quickly the Syrian conflict is brought to an end, and a democratic, rights-based system installed in the country.

Until that happens, analysts say the refugees will keep arriving in Europe.

"Everyone is trying to come to Europe because this is where they can be treated as human beings who have equal rights, although they are refugees, although they come from different ethnic backgrounds, different religions," said Rim Turkmani, a civil society and security researcher at the London School of Economics.

"Here, they can be granted a minimal level of economic stability that preserves their dignity," she told VOA.

Diplomatic efforts on ending the five-year-old war shifted Wednesday to Europe, with Germany hosting talks with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura and Riad Hijab, the main Syrian opposition representative.

France is also due to hold talks next week with representatives of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf nations. The meetings aim to salvage a U.S.-Russia mediated cease-fire after talks stalled last week in Geneva.

Fierce fighting continued Wednesday between Russian-backed government forces and rebels in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

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