Merkel meets Balkan leaders over migrants

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VIENNA: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, stung by several setbacks at the ballot box over her refugees policy, was due in Vienna Saturday for potentially tense talks with the leaders of countries along the Balkan migrant route.

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They include Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary who has been sharply critical of Merkel’s “open-door” policy, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece, a country now home to 60,000 stranded migrants, and Boyko Borisov, premier of newly under-pressure Bulgaria.

Orban called on Thursday for all illegal migrants to be deported from the European Union to “large refugee camps” on an island or in North Africa where their asylum claims could be processed.

EU President Donald Tusk and Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos were also expected, along with representatives from hosts Austria, Croatia, Romania and Slovenia, plus non-EU Serbia, Macedonia and Albania.

Last year hundreds of thousands of people, many fleeing the Syrian war, trekked up from Greece though the western Balkans northwards, particularly into Austria, Germany and Scandinavia.

In March though, under pressure from Austria, Balkan countries closed their borders, and the flow has since slowed dramatically, although 100-150 still make it to Austria every day, Vienna says.

The same month the EU struck a deal with Turkey—home to more than three million refugees—under which Ankara halted the influx in return for billions in aid and other sweeteners.

The pact may yet collapse, however, in the wake of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey.

Greece under strain
Greece meanwhile remains under severe strain.

An EU scheme to share out large concentrations of migrants who have gathered in Greece, and also in Italy, has not met expectations, and extra administrative assistance promised by the EU has been insufficient. There was also a huge fire at a refugee camp on Lesbos on Monday.

Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest country, is home to around 10,000 stranded migrants although Brussels has promised Sofia extra help and a new EU border force will start operations on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey on October 6.

Not all of those attending in Vienna necessarily see eye-to-eye on Europe’s worst migration crisis since 1945.

Chancellor Christian Kern of Austria, which is making preparations to seal its borders if needed, said that the aim of Saturday’s gathering was to take stock of the situation in the Balkans.

“Athens is still able to more or less handle the situation. But the pressure is going to grow,” Kern told the Standard daily.

The difficulties of making it through to the Balkans has prompted increasing numbers to attempt the treacherous sea crossing from Libya or Egypt to Italy.

More than 300,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean this year, the UN said on Tuesday, down from 520,000 from the first nine months of 2015. But deaths this year— 3,500 so far—could exceed last year’s total.

In the latest disaster, more than 160 migrants drowned on Friday when their overcrowded boat sank off the Egyptian coast.

AFP

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