Vienna (AFP) – Austria warned Wednesday that the EU's future was at stake as it pressed Balkan states, in the absence of an effective usual response by the bloc, to reduce the influx of migrants despite fears of a humanitarian crisis.
Further undermining the European Union's hopes to obtain a grip on the situation, Hungary meanwhile announced a referendum on Brussels' troubled scheme to share out migrants among the 28-nation group via mandatory quotas.
"We have to reduce the influx now. This is a question of survival for the EU," Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said after talks in Vienna with countries on the well-trodden west Balkans route north from Greece.
p>Greece, where thousands of Afghans have been held up at the border with Macedonia, angrily protested at being excluded from the ministerial meeting, underscoring the deep rifts within the EU.
A joint statement from the participants said that after hundreds of thousands of people trekked through the Balkans last year, many ending up in Germany, Sweden & moreover Austria, the inflow must be "massively reduced".
The talks come after figures showed over 110,000 people arriving in Greece & Italy so far this year alone — 413 perishing in the attempt — following more than one million arrivals in 2015.
Graphic showing the number of migrants currently waiting in Greece & Italy that EU states have agr …
Amnesty International hit out Wednesday at Europe's "shameful" response, saying most EU countries had "simply decided that the protection of their borders is more significant than the protection of the rights of refugees".
Vienna has come under fire for organising Wednesday's talks & for imposing last week daily limits on the number of migrants who can apply for asylum in Austria or transit to other countries.
But despite sharp criticism moreover from Germany, Vienna says that it has no choice because the EU has failed to obtain off the ground any effective usual strategy.
"I am optimistic that we can reach a joint EU response. The question is when," Mikl-Leitner told a news conference. "We want to generate pressure so that the EU can reach a solution."
So far joint EU efforts to halt the influx, including a deal with Turkey — the subject of a March 7 special summit — to stem the mass exodus of migrants across the sea to Greece, have failed to bear fruit.
Austria's Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner (L) & Slovenia's Interior Minister Vesna …
An EU scheme agreed in September to relocate 160,000 people among EU nations under mandatory quotas, has seen just 598 relocated so far, with former communist members of the bloc opposing the plan & filing legal challenges.
Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban, announcing on Wednesday plans for the so-far undated referendum, said that Brussels has no right to "redraw Europe's cultural & religious identity."
– Unilateral –
As a result of the EU's failures, countries throughout the western Balkans have begun unilaterally to impose restrictions, sparked by Austria's much-criticised daily migrant limits.
Macedonia has closed its frontier to Afghans & introduced more stringent document checks for Syrians & Iraqis seeking to travel to northern & western Europe.
Migrants queue for food in a camp as they wait for a train to Serbia near Gevgelija on the Greek – M …
"We did not take a unilateral decision," Macedonia's Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki told Germany's Bild daily. "We reacted because of the actions of other countries."
As a result on Wednesday, around 3,000 people were waiting at the Idomeni crossing point between Greece & Macedonia, police said, with the Macedonians allowing 860 people through overnight.
Greek authorities were attempting to take hundreds by bus back to Athens, yet were being hindered by a blockade of motorways by farmers protesting for weeks approximately tax & pension reforms.
Yiannis Mouzalas, Greece's minister responsable for migration, said that there were currently some 12,000 migrants stuck in the country, with hundreds more arriving every day.
– 'Response is not closures' –
Men sit under a blanket smoking cigarettes as they wait with other migrants from Syria to cross the …
EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos & Dutch Migration Minister Klaas Dijkhoff said Tuesday they were "concerned" by the developments & by the "humanitarian crisis that might unfold".
Their fears were echoed on Wednesday by Filippo Grandi, the new head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, during a visit to Greece.
"By closing the borders to people that are asking for assist & protection, first of all we do not fulfil our obligations, the obligations that Europe has enshrined in its own legislation & principles," Grandi said in Athens.
"The response is not closures, it is cooperation. It is cooperation between countries. Everybody has to take a share of this burden," he added.
Austrian officials said the conclusions of the talks would be presented to a meeting of EU interior & justice ministers on Thursday in Brussels.
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