Petros Giannakouris / AP

EU nations told ‘no alternative,’ they must resettle 160,000 refugees

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker outlines compulsory plan in which members states share burden

The president of the European Commission has called on EU member nations to take in 160,000 refugees, outlining a compulsory plan that would see people fleeing conflict resettled across the bloc.

In an impassioned appeal at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Jean-Claude Juncker told European lawmakers that it was “high time to act.”

“The refugee crisis will not simply go away,” he added, noting that some 500,000 refugees have entered Europe this year, many from conflict-torn Syria and Libya.

“We are fighting against Islamic State. Why are we not ready to accept those who are fleeing Islamic State?” he said.

Noting that many Europeans were refugees at one time or another, Juncker continued, “It is high time to act, to manage the refugee crisis, because there is no alternative. No rhetoric — action is what is needed for the time.”

‘It is high time to act, to manage the refugee crisis, because there is no alternative. No rhetoric – action is what is needed for the time.’

Jean-Claude Juncker

president, European Commission

In his proposal, Juncker wants member states to accept another 120,000 refugees, on top of the 40,000 already agreed upon, bringing the total to 160,000.   

He did not, however, release specific numbers that each EU member state must take. Member states have been split over how to deal with increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict and arriving in Europe, with many objecting to a quota system. 

Hungary in particular has been singled out by other member states — notably France and Germany — for what has been described as its harsh policy toward refugees. It is in the process of completing a 13-foot-high steel and barbed wire security fence along the entirety of its 109-mile border with Serbia in a bid to keep refugees out.

Last week Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his country “did not want a large number of Muslim people.”

Tackling such sentiment in Wednesday’s speech, Juncker said, “There is no religion, there is no belief, there is no philosophy when it comes to refugees. We don’t distinguish.”

Before his speech, Juncker released a statement offering better protection for refugees but also proposing to improve the EU’s frontier defenses and deport more “illegal migrants.” He also called for “a swift, determined and comprehensive response to the refugee crisis.”

Germany, which hosts the most refugees, has already backed the idea, as has Sweden, which takes the most refugees in relation to its population.

Italy, which is one of the main arrival points for thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, is also in favor. France supports the plan, as does Spain, which AFP reported agreed to take in 14,931 refugees, as proposed by the European Commission, in addition to 2,749 who were accepted in July, bringing the country’s total to 17,680. 

Under the proposal, countries refusing to take in refugees could face financial penalties.

But the plan is expected to meet stiff opposition among the poorer EU nations in the east and south.

The Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia have joined Hungary in saying that mandatory and permanent quotas would be unacceptable.

“The compulsory quotas are not a good solution,” Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said in a statement. “To continue with a discussion about their establishment all across Europe only prevents us from taking really important and necessary steps.”

‘We consider the quotas nonsensical. They don’t solve the problem.’

Tomas Prouza

Czech state secretary for European affairs

Czech State Secretary for European Affairs Tomas Prouza told Czech public television Wednesday, “We consider the quotas nonsensical. They don’t solve the problem.”

An estimated 400,000 refugees are expected to cross the Mediterranean this year, with many arriving in Greece, specifically the island of Lesbos, which has received almost 100,000 refugees this year.

In response to appeals for help from an increasingly strained Europe, Australia said it would take an additional 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq, and several South American countries also agreed to help, including Brazil and Chile. Venezuela said it would accept 20,000 refugees.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged greater flexibility in EU refugee quotas. Speaking alongside Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in Berlin on Tuesday, she said that all countries in Europe have to take responsibility for the values on which Europe was founded in dealing with the refugee crisis.

‘We can’t just say Syria is too far away, we don’t care about it, when the entire world is looking at us.’

Angela Merkel

German chancellor

“We can’t just say Syria is too far away, we don’t care about it, when the entire world is looking at us,” she said.

Germany, which has said it would take in 800,000 asylum seekers this year, would continue accepting “a greatly disproportionate share” among EU members “because we are an economically strong country,” the country’s Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said on Tuesday. He added that Germany was prepared to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees in the years to come.

On Tuesday, EU President Donald Tusk warned that the refugee crisis affecting Europe was part of an “exodus” from war-torn countries that could last years.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates has defended its response to the Syrian refugee crisis in the face of criticism that oil-rich Gulf states should be doing more to address the issue.

In a statement provided to The Associated Press, the UAE said it has provided residency permits to more than 100,000 Syrians who have entered the country since 2011 and that more than 242,000 Syrian nationals currently live in the country. 

In addition to the visa extensions, the UAE said it has provided more than $530 million in humanitarian aid and development assistance since 2012 in response to the Syrian crisis. Part of that aid goes to fund a camp in Jordan that houses more than 4,000 refugees.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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