Western Balkans summit overshadowed by refugee crisis

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 31, 2015 11:13

Story Highlights

  • Amnesty International urges Western Balkan governments to live up to their international obligations to help the refugees, criticizes EU's 'absurd' asylum policies

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TIRANA, Aug. 31 – The Vienna Western Balkans Summit, a high-level meeting aiming to reassure the region of its European perspective, has been overshadowed by the refugee crisis hitting the region and the European Union.

As the leaders of Germany, Austria and the Western Balkan countries met in Vienna, tens of thousands of refugees from war-torn Middle East and other migrants were making their way from Greece through the Balkans with the goal of reaching Western Europe.

Macedonia and Serbia have been overwhelmed by the surge of refugees, asking the EU for help. Originally blocking the migrants at the Greek border, authorities in Macedonia are now trying to shuttle the refugees through the country as fast as possible, adding extra trains and buses to speed the passage north to Serbia.

Albanian authorities have increased their presence at the border with Greece, which has seen for months a daily trickle of refugees trying to make their way through Albania toward Western Europe, but the numbers are much lower than those in Macedonia and Serbia. Albanian officials are worried, however, that if the flow gets rerouted through Albania, the country will not be able to cope.

Sebastian Kurz, Austria's foreign minister, said there was an urgent need for an overall European approach to the problem and the refugees arriving from Greece should not be routed through non-EU members in the Western Balkans.

However, EU members like Hungary are racing to finish a fence along their border aimed at deterring migration through Serbia. Bulgaria, another EU member, has also built a fence at its border with Turkey, driving much of the migration through Greece.

Amnesty International has condemned EU's approach.

“There is a real concern that refugees are getting trapped in a Balkans no-man’s land without protection or support, whilst EU countries turn their backs. This is leaving them vulnerable to further human rights abuses,” said Gauri van Gulik, the organization's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.

However, with boats carrying refugees continuing to arrive on the Greek islands, and UNHCR’s announcement that up to 3,000 refugees and migrants are expected to cross into Macedonia on a daily basis throughout the next several months, the authorities in the Western Balkans countries must still live up to their international obligations towards asylum-seekers, including allowing those seeking asylum to do so in a prompt and effective manner, the human rights organization said in a statement.

“It is true that Europe’s borderlands are facing an unprecedented arrival of refugees. But it’s also true that this is only a fraction of the numbers of refugees being hosted by developing countries as the world faces the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. The increase in arrivals also doesn’t absolve countries along the Balkans route of their legal obligations,”  Van Gulik added.

Amnesty International says what European asylum system is broken because having fled fear and desperation, refugees are confronted with an impossible choice – to stay and apply for asylum in the country of arrival with, in the case of Greece, appalling reception and detention conditions; or to travel further, and embark once more on a potentially clandestine and hazardous journey.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who attended the Vienna summit, called on European states to implement joint asylum agreements to remedy the current situation.

Berlin has announced it will no longer force Syrian refugees to return to the country where they first entered the EU – normally Greece or Italy – to apply for asylum as mandated by EU's regulations spelled out in the Dublin Agreement.



Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 31, 2015 11:13