EU unveils 'bold' migrant crisis plan

  • 09/09/2015
A migrant child sits with a doll near the town of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (AAP)
A migrant child sits with a doll near the town of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (AAP)

By Cedric Simon

EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has unveiled a major plan to deal with the continent's worst refugee crisis in 70 years, as Greece and Hungary grapple with fresh flows of desperate people.

Juncker outlined plans on Wednesday for binding quotas that would share out 120,000 refugees across the bloc from swamped border states, as well as a more permanent system for a crisis that officials say will last for years.

Australia had earlier said it would take more people fleeing wars in Syria and Iraq, responding to calls from an increasingly strained Europe for the rest of the world to help shoulder the burden.

In his first EU State of the Union speech to the European Parliament, Juncker urged "bold, determined action", saying, "Now is not the time to take fright."

The migrants' plight has touched hearts around the world, spurred especially by pictures last week of three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach.

Germany - which expects 800,000 asylum claims this year and has said it could take half a million refugees annually over several years - said the plan "was an important first step", but warned against rigid ceilings.

"We need an open system to share out those with a right to asylum," Chancellor Angela Merkel said after talks with Swedish premier Stefan Lofven, whose country has also already welcomed thousands of migrants.

Under the EU plan, Germany would take more than 31,000 migrants, France 24,000 and Spain almost 15,000. Australia, which has maintained a hard line on asylum-seekers, pledged on Wednesday to take in 12,000.

France has already agreed to take its 24,000 over two years and British Prime Minister David Cameron has said Britain can take 20,000 over five years.

But mandatory quotas have faced stiff opposition from states such as Hungary that are on the front line of Europe's largest migrant wave since World War II.

EU president Donald Tusk warned Monday of an "exodus" that would likely last "for many years".

Rights groups have criticised the EU response, which Amnesty International labelled "piecemeal and incoherent", and urged more support for border countries that are barely coping with the vast influx of people.

On the Greek holiday island of Lesbos, where around 20,000 refugees and migrants have been waiting in squalid conditions to travel to the mainland, a new processing centre was set up overnight to help with registrations.

Athens has warned the situation is "on the verge of explosion", while tensions are also rising across the Aegean Sea where around 10,000 more people are stuck on islands as they make their way to Western Europe.