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European leaders will hold an emergency summit this weekend in an attempt to bring order to the tide of migrants crossing the western Balkans. The influx of refugees has raised fears that overwhelmed authorities and rash military deployments could stir regional tensions.
The hastily arranged meeting in Brussels comes after weeks of tit-for-tat border closures in Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, which have led to thousands of migrants being stranded in increasingly difficult conditions in southeastern Europe.
The crisis has triggered a dramatic deterioration of relations between governments in the region, with Slovenian prime minister Miro Cerar attacking Croatia’s handling of the situation. Slovenia this weekend called in the army to help cope with the influx, sparking concern among diplomats in Brussels.
In an effort to ease the pressure, German chancellor Angela Merkel will meet leaders from nine other countries on the so-called “western Balkans route”, which has become the main route for people trying to reach Europe.
More than 500,000 people have entered Europe via Greece this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration, with the bulk of these arrivals then heading north through the former Yugoslavia towards countries such as Austria and Germany. This led a wave of border closures as countries in the region struggled to deal with the arrivals.
The EU is struggling to respond to a surge of migrants that has resulted in thousands of deaths since the beginning of the year
At the meeting , Ms Merkel is expected to push for increased efforts to “Europeanise” border controls. The chancellor believes that unless the influx is brought to a halt, finding a solution to where refugees will be resettled or relocated will be nearly impossible.
She is also expected to push for a broader resettlement scheme for refugees outside the EU, as a way to turn “illegal immigration” into “legal immigration”.
Brussels’ plans involve a potential “structural” resettlement programme early next year. Officials will look at basing the proposals on recommendations from the UNHCR, which has called on the EU to take in up to 200,000 from refugee camps in countries such as Turkey and Lebanon.
This mass resettlement will come on top of the agreed “relocation” of 160,000 asylum-seekers from Italy and Greece to other EU countries, which was introduced after a diplomatic bust-up between Berlin and its eastern neighbours.
Some diplomats in Brussels are fearful that while a discussion on the situation is necessary, meeting will lead to another fight on controversial plans to share asylum-seekers across the EU.
Those pressing for Europe to tighten border control in particular worry countries at the summit will reach arrangements that keep borders open — leaving a flow of migrants that ultimately needs divisive Berlin-backed solutions such as “burden-sharing” and migrant quotas.
“We’d see a surge, increased flow, and suddenly in the policy debate for all 28 we would see a push for burden-sharing,” said one diplomat. “That is what the border countries want.”
Berlin has attempted to toughen its stance on refugees and is considering using military transport aircraft to ferry unsuccessful asylum-seekers back to their homelands to try to win over an increasingly sceptical German public.
The measure could help officials fulfil pledges made by Ms Merkel to accelerate the removal of failed asylum-seekers; a process that takes far longer in Germany than in some other EU states.
The eight EU member states set to attend the summit are Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia, along with Germany, which is still the favoured destination for most people heading to Europe. Non-EU countries including Macedonia and Serbia will also attend the meeting.