As refugees battle rain and heat, EU nations battle one another

Torrential downpours slow progress across Greece-Macedonia border; European nations divided over resettlement plan

Exhausted refugees heading across Greece’s northern border with Macedonia were forced to battle torrential rains Thursday, as EU nations continued to bicker over how to accommodate growing numbers of people fleeing conflict.

Thousands of people, including families with young children, trudged through muddy fields to get to Macedonia in what Greek police described as the largest movement of refugees it had seen so far. It comes after authorities managed to register 17,000 migrants on Lesbos over the last few days — alleviating, to some degree, tensions on the island that had seen locals clash with refugees, many of whom arrived having endured an arduous journey from conflict zones in the Middle East.

The caretaker government in Athens chartered two extra ferries and sent additional registration staff to Lesbos to ease overcrowding there — more than 20,000 refugees have been living on the island in what NGOs have described as deteriorating conditions.

It is part of a refugee crisis to which Europe has scrambled to find a coherent response.

On Wednesday, European Union chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker told EU member states that they must share the burden, noting that Greece, Italy and Hungary — the main entry points for refugees, many of whom hope to travel towards richer countries in the mainland’s north and west — cannot cope with the numbers arriving on overcrowded, rickety ships.

Juncker cautioned that a compulsory quota system would have to be imposed, a response praised by some but strongly opposed by other EU nations, notably in the bloc’s east.

The European Parliament on Thursday backed Juncker’s to spread out 160,000 refugees across the other member states, but the support of the legislature had been expected and has little impact compared with the power of the member states, which also need to back the plan.

EU ministers will hold an extraordinary meeting on the issue next Monday but given the opposition of several eastern EU nations to mandatory quotas, it’s unclear what might be achieved absent a change in policies.

Romania's president on Thursday said there is “no way” his country will accept the extra number of refugees the European Commission has proposed. Romania has been asked to accept 6,351 people. Leaders say that's too much after they initially agreed to accept some 1,785.

President Klaus Iohannis said Romania would send its interior minister to a special meeting Monday in Brussels to discuss the issue.

“I had a discussion with him today and his mandate is to declare that there is no way Romania will agree to the obligatory quotas.”

Iohannis said the EU is seeking to distribute refugees in a bureaucratic way without consulting member states.

In Hungary, which has been criticized for its heavy-handed response to the refugee crisis, police are rejecting allegations that they mistreat refugees as a record high of more than 3,300 entered the country in just one day.

Police said Thursday around 1,000 officers were on duty on the border with Serbia, where 3,321 refugees had been detained Wednesday.

Allegations of heavy-handedness were also present further south. Macedonian police formed a human chain on its border with Greece to stem the numbers entering.  Occasionally, they resorted to using batons and shields to push people back.

Parents held their children aloft in the rain, to make sure the Macedonian police would see them. Mud-splattered children dragged luggage and stumbled into rain-filled potholes, climbing out soaked and crying.

For some, the chaos, cold and rain were unbearable. One Iraqi man was asking anyone he could find how he could return home. He wanted to fly back to Iraq, he said, he couldn't bear the conditions any more to reach Europe.

Abas Jizi, a 30-year-old supermarket employee from Deir ez-Zor in Syria, huddled around a fire with his wife and three children at the Idomeni train station, cradling his 1-year-old son.

“I was hit by the police” in Lesbos, he said. “The situation was very bad. We waited for 10 days to get our papers. We got to Athens yesterday and we set off straight away for here.”

Whereas refugees on the Greek-Macedonian border are battling rain, on the Serb-Hungarian border the problem is the heat.

“They are blocked here, they are suffering in the heat, we see children all over the place collapsed in absolute exhaustion,” said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's emergencies director, of those refugees in the country.

“Hungary cannot cope with this influx of asylum seekers, they're not properly treating these people, and they either have to meet their international obligations and their obligations towards the EU or they have to let these people go to where they want to go, which certainly is not Hungary.”

Amid such chaotic scenes on EU members’ borders, Juncker appealed to European compassion.

“The numbers are impressive. For some they are frightening,” he said, referring to figures suggesting half a million may have arrived in Europe this year. “But now is not the time to take fright. It is time for bold, determined and concerted action.”

His appeal to “historical fairness,” reminding east Europeans of their own past welcome as refugees, had a mixed reception.

Alongside Romania, the Czech and Slovak leaders stood firm against quotas, which they say will attract more refugees and disrupt their homogenous societies.

But with Germany and France throwing their weight behind Juncker, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said she too had got his message.

“Calls for Polish solidarity is no blackmail,” she said after her opponent in next month's election said the biggest ex-Communist member state should not give in to EU pressure.

“Acting jointly and efficiently in the EU is in our interest,” Kopacz said. "Let's be decent … President Juncker has reminded us that once we were also refugees."

Meanwhile, Germany's vice chancellor said Juncker’s plan to relocate 160,000 refugees around Europe was a good “first step” but the numbers show clearly more is needed.

Sigmar Gabriel told Parliament in Berlin on Thursday that Germany had registered some 450,000 refugees this year, including 105,000 in August and 37,000 in September through Tuesday.

“That shows that the redistribution of 160,000 refugees in Europe is a first step,” Gabriel said. “One could also say a drop in the ocean that won't solve everything.”

Germany and Sweden have led the EU in taking in the largest number and percentage of refugees, respectively.

With no let up in violence in Iraq and Syria, four million of whose citizens are now refugees in neighboring countries, the European crisis has piqued consciences globally. Australia said it would accept another 12,000 Syrians and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was committed to take more.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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