EU LEADERS ARE meeting in Brussels today, where there will be discussions around the possible closure of the Balkans route which is used by most migrants to reach Europe.
In a statement this morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokeswoman said the idea that an EU-Turkey summit will declare the Balkans refugee route closed is “speculation” while talks are ongoing.
“I indeed have taken note of reports that there is speculation about the closure of the Balkans route, but I want to say that this is speculation at the moment,” said spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz.
“The negotiations and talks are ongoing and we have to wait.”
Today’s meeting comes one day after at least 25 more people drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea en route to Greece. It’s believed that ten children died in the incident.
The bloc’s 28 leaders will ask Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to accept “large-scale” deportations of migrants from Greece.
It has pledged to give Turkey €3 billion.
Greece has seen non-EU Macedonia and EU countries on the western Balkans route virtually shut their borders in a domino effect, trapping Syrian and other asylum seekers desperate to head north to wealthy Germany and Scandinavia.
An EU diplomat told journalists that European leaders would declare to “close the Balkans route in the coming days,” ending the “wave-through approach” to migrants that has caused chaos and tension in Europe.
Help for Greece
Some 34,000 migrants are currently stranded in Greece — with about a third of that number camped out in increasingly difficult conditions at the Greek-Macedonian border.
Refugees and other migrants have continued to travel to Greece from nearby Turkey despite the border closures, with 2,480 arriving Sunday, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
Police are patrolling a square in central Athens to prevent migrants from setting up camp there after the site was cleared at the weekend.
Hundreds of people, mostly from Afghanistan, had been sleeping rough at Victoria Square in the center of Athens since border restrictions and closures were imposed by Austria and several Balkan countries last month.
Today, police were instructing those reaching the square to seek refuge at one of several shelters set up around the capital, while municipal workers were cleaning the area, using pressure hoses.
Emergency aid for Greece
EU leaders are set to stand by Greece after having last week promised €700 million in emergency aid for the country and other states to help them manage the influx at their borders.
Yesterday, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras demanded the “urgent” relocation of thousands of refugees to other member states.
The bloc adopted a scheme last September to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, but fewer than 700 people have actually been moved.
On Friday, Brussels unveiled a plan to restore by the end of the year the full functioning of Europe’s cherished passport-free Schengen zone after the series of border closures.
It was timed with calls for not only better cooperation from Turkey but also the creation of an EU coastguard force by the summer and help for Greece to strengthen its external border.
Processing asylum seekers
Meanwhile, The Financial Times reported yesterday that Brussels had drafted a proposal to centralise the system for processing asylum applications, removing the current rule that requires asylum seekers to lodge their claim in the first EU country they arrive in.
The proposal is part of a radical overhaul of its refugee policy to be announced at a summit on 17 March.
Greece Migrants A child plays with a cardboard box at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni.
Amnesty International has criticised the summit today, stating that European leaders’ attempts to use Turkey as a border guard to stop refugees and asylum-seekers heading to the EU is a “dangerous and deliberate ploy to shirk their responsibilities to people fleeing war and persecution”.
“Using Turkey as a ‘safe third country’ is absurd. Many refugees still live in terrible conditions, some have been deported back to Syria and security forces have even shot at Syrians trying to cross the border,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.
Europe has an absolute duty to protect refugees and must make the bold decision to fast-track significant, unconditional resettlement as a matter of urgency.