Europe 'close to limits' on refugee influx

Europe 'close to limits' on refugee influx
EU President Donald Tusk said on Sunday that Europe was 'close to limits' on its ability to accept new waves of refugees, urging the international community to share the burden.
5 min read
04 September, 2016
Europe is "close to limits" on its ability to accept new waves of refugees, EU President Donald Tusk said on Sunday, urging the broader international community to shoulder its share of the burden.

"The practical capability of Europe to host new waves of refugees, not to mention irregular economic migrants, is close to limits," he told a press conference on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

A steady stream of refugees has flowed into Europe over the last year, largely fleeing the civil war in Syria.

The issue has become a political hot potato for leaders in the region as a series of Islamist terror attacks and rising anti-globalisation sentiment have combined to create an increasingly inhospitable environment for refugees from the brutal conflict.

The highly publicised drowning of a three-year-old Syrian boy last year temporarily softened hostility to migrants, after pictures of his corpse lying on a Greek beach rapidly became an emblematic image of the suffering involved in their journeys.

Germany threw open its borders and volunteers across Europe flocked to train stations and frontier crossings to welcome those fleeing war and poverty.

But a major backlash swiftly followed. The EU's outer borders have since come back down hard, the so-called Balkan migrant route has shut and anti-migrant sentiment has soared.

Angela Merkel has been a strong voice pushing to continue to accept refugees. Although she won praise at first, the mood has since turned, giving way to fears over how Europe's biggest economy will manage to integrate the million people who arrived last year alone.

Her decision has left her increasingly isolated in Europe, and exposed her to heavy criticism at home, including from her own conservative allies.

The practical capability of Europe to host new waves of refugees, not to mention irregular economic migrants, is close to limits
- Donald Tusk

Tusk said there were 65 million displaced people around the world, and "the G20 community should scale up its share of responsibility". 

"We have enough space for all parties to discuss these problems including China," he said, calling for financial assistance and development aid for migrants' countries of origin.

"Only global efforts will be able to bear fruits."

Recent comments from leaders in Germany and Italy have signalled a hardening of attitudes about how to resolve the migrant crisis reshaping politics across Europe.

In March, the EU and Turkey signed a controversial deal aimed at stemming the flow of migrants to Europe.

US President Barack Obama praised Ankara's efforts to help refugees, thanking his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the country's "exceptional humanitarian support of refugees".

"Turkey hosts more refugees than any country in the world, and it has been a key partner in providing aid and assistance to vulnerable citizens that have poured out of Syria as well as Iraq," he said at a meeting with Erdogan.

"This is not an issue in which Turkey should be carrying the burden alone," he added. "It needs support from all of us, and we intend to provide it."

'Deadliest year for refugees'

On Friday, the United Nations names 2016 as the deadliest year so far for refugees in the Central Mediterranean, as the use of the North Africa-Italy route has remained constant despite a dramatic drop in the number of deaths of refugees seeking safety via the Turkey-Greece route into Europe.

"The chances of dying on the Libya to Italy route are ten times higher than when crossing from Turkey to Greece," William Spindler, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva.

"So far this year, one person has died for every 42 crossing from North Africa to Italy, compared to one in every 52 last year  this makes 2016 to date the deadliest year on record in the Central Mediterranean."

Pictures of Aylan Kurdi's corpse became an emblematic image
of the suffering involved in the refugees' journeys [AFP]

According to UNHCR, the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece has dropped dramatically, from more than 67,000 in January 2016 to 3,437 in August 2016, following the closure of the so-called Balkan route and the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal.

The number of arrivals to Italy, meanwhile, has remained more or less constant, with some 115,000 refugees and migrants landing in Italy as of the end of August this year, compared to 116,000 during the same period last year. 

Overall, during the first eight months of 2016, some 281,740 people have made the sea crossing to Europe, with UNHCR estimating that some 4,176 people have died or gone missing on the Mediterranean since this time last year - an average of 11 men, women and children perishing every day over the last 12 months. 

In his remarks, Spindler noted that it was also one year since Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi drowned while attempting to enter Europe via the Turkey-Greece route with his family. An image of his corpse had led to strong international outcry over the circumstances of people seeking refuge in Europe.

"The death of Aylan Kurdi resulted in unprecedented expressions of sympathy and solidarity for refugees all over Europe, with many people volunteering to help and spontaneously giving food, water and clothes to refugees and even offering to take them into their homes," the spokesperson said.

"The arrival of over a million refugees and migrants to Europe last year has also given rise to hostility and tensions within the societies hosting them," he added.

Agencies contributed to this report