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EU, Balkan leaders commit to more refugee shelters at emergency summit

European Union, Balkan leaders agreed on a 17-point plan to cooperate on managing flows of refugees

European Union and Balkan leaders meeting in Brussels agreed on a 17-point plan to cooperate on managing flows of refugees through the Balkan peninsula, the European Commission said in a statement (PDF) early on Monday.

The leaders agreed to slow the chaotic flow of people moving up from Greece and provide much more shelter as winter looms after spending Sunday lashing out at each other on Sunday at each other's handling of Europe's greatest immigration crisis since World War II.

"This is one of the greatest litmus tests that Europe has ever faced," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the hastily called emergency summit in Brussels, the 11 EU and Balkan leaders were especially looking to shore up Greece's porous border with Turkey and slow the flow of people heading toward Western Europe.

"We have made very clear that the policy of simply waving people through must be stopped," Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters, referring to agreements to cooperate and avoid unilateral national measures that have contributed to chaos throughout the region. 

Nearly 250,000 people have passed through the Balkans since mid-September and the surge is not being deterred by either cold weather or colder waters off Greece. Croatia said 11,500 people crossed into the country Saturday, the highest in a single day since Hungary put up a fence and refugees started coming into Croatia in mid-September.

Among measures agreed upon were that 100,000 places in reception centers should be made available along the route from Greece toward Germany, half of them in Greece and half in countries to the north. The U.N. refugee agency would help establish them.

The leaders also agreed that the EU border agency Frontex would step up activity on the Greek-Macedonian border to ensure people trying to cross would be registered.

The leaders also agreed on the deployment in Slovenia within a week of 400 police officers and essential equipment through bilateral support. 

Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar had said his tiny Alpine nation was being overwhelmed by the refugees — with 60,000 arriving in the last 10 days — and was not receiving enough help from its EU partners.

He put the challenge in simple terms: if no fresh approach is forthcoming "in the next few days and weeks, I do believe that the European Union and Europe as a whole will start to fall apart." 

After the summit, Merkel, who had pushed for the meeting, said: "Europe must show it is a continent of values, a continent of solidarity ... . This is a building block but we need to take many further steps."

The agreement also stressed that refugees would be registered using “maximum use of biometric data, notably fingerprints” and that the nations involved would “step up our national and coordinated efforts to swiftly return migrants not in need of international protection in full respect of their dignity and human rights.” 

The agreement came about, in part, to answer a question posed by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic that the 28-nation bloc and non-EU nations like Serbia have been unable to answer since the migratory trek across the Mediterranean and through Turkey started last spring: "What we are going to do with hundreds of thousands of these people?"

Half a year later, there is no answer. Sunday's meeting came up with some solutions none of which fully addressed the issues at stake.

 "The only way to restore order to this situation is to slow down the uncontrolled flow of these people," Juncker said.

Many say the EU needs to get control of the refugee flow at the bloc's external border between EU-member Greece and Turkey. Migration experts, however, say the flood of refugees won't be halted until the world resolves the war in Syria, which  is driving millions out of the country.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic asked of fellow EU nation Greece: "Why doesn't Greece control its maritime half with Turkey?"

Greece, criticized for being ill-prepared as a first EU buffer against the flow of people, decried the lack of EU solidarity.

"Till today, it was difficult to find a solution, because a series of countries adopt a stance `Not in my backyard,"' Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, so often the target for building border fences that diverted the flow of refugees to other nations, simply said "Hungary is not on the route anymore, so we are just observers here." Then he lashed into measures other EU nations had already taken, especially those belonging to the Schengen passport-free border zone.

"The no. 1 source of the crisis is that members of the European Union, and especially those who are members of Schengen treaty, are not able, or are not ready to keep their word," Orban declared.

As the leaders convened, those out in the field begged them to act quickly and more decisively.

At Slovenia's overwhelmed Brezice refugee camp near the border with Croatia, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency urged leaders to come up with a system to register and screen newcomers when they first enter Europe, rather than in piecemeal attempts at borders along the way.

"But also very important is to help Syria's neighboring countries, where there are around 4 million refugees," said UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch. "These people don't need to take these risky journeys if there are legal pathways to come to Europe."

Refugees now mainly travel across the water from Turkey to Greece, and then north to Macedonia and Serbia before entering Croatia and moving on to Slovenia and Austria. Most are aiming to get to Germany or Scandinavia.

In a reminder of the dangers, Greece's coast guard said a woman and two young children drowned and seven other people were missing after their boat smashed into rocks on the island of Lesbos amid turbulent seas. Fifty-three others were rescued.

The number of people on the move across Europe was still in the tens of thousands.

Mahmoud Awad, a UNHCR field protection officer, said about 1,000 people passed through Serbia's border town of Berkasovo and into Croatia overnight from Saturday to Sunday. In the Austrian border town of Spielfeld, 2,500 people spent the night in tents and 7,000 more were expected Sunday from Slovenia, the dpa news agency reported. In Germany's southernmost state of Bavaria, the flow of asylum-seekers from Austria was steady at 3,000 to 6,000 people per day.

Wire services

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