EU to hold migrant talks as pressure mounts for ‘last chance’ deal

migrantEU interior ministers were set to hold emergency talks Tuesday to try and bridge deep divisions over Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II, as pressure builds for member states to reach an agreement.

In an interview with several European newspapers, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned the “raison d’etre of Europe” was at stake, while the OECD grouping of developed countries said the continent had the capacity and an “obligation” to absorb migrants and refugees fleeing conflict and poverty.

Tuesday’s meeting in Brussels will see ministers discuss controversial binding quotas to relocate 120,000 refugees around the EU from frontline states after they failed to reach a deal last week, and ahead of a full summit of the bloc’s 28 leaders on Wednesday.

The UN refugee agency warned that the talks could be the “last opportunity” for a united response to a crisis it said was becoming more and more “chaotic and unpredictable” and was increasing tensions between European countries.

Calling for adequate reception facilities in countries on the frontline, UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said: “We’re talking about an average of 6,000 people entering every single day on European shores.”

– ‘No choice but to leave’ –

On the eve of the talks, UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged leaders across the EU to “show leadership and compassion” as the continent grapples with the unrelenting wave of migrants, many of them refugees like Abdullah, a 35-year-old Syrian father of two from war-ravaged Aleppo.

“We have no choice but to leave. We are dying here every day,” he told AFP in Istanbul where he has worked odd jobs for three years to save money for a journey across Europe he hopes to make soon.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras meanwhile called for responsibility to be shared, saying “otherwise there is no point in talking about a united Europe”.

More than 430,000 people have already braved dangerous sea crossings and arduous land treks to make it into western Europe this year, heaping pressure on countries along the migrant trail, some of which have closed their borders, while others have diverted the flow elsewhere.

Some 2,800 people have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats.

Germany champions a relocation plan that would force EU member states to take in a pre-determined number of migrants and refugees, but many countries in eastern Europe reject binding quotas.

Sources in Brussels said EU ministers were considering a watered-down plan that would drop binding quotas and leave Hungary out of the scheme, as it refuses to be part of it.

Budapest has taken the toughest stance on the crisis, erecting razor-wire barriers along its borders with Serbia and Croatia in a bid to keep migrants out, and broadening the military’s powers.

On Monday, lawmakers voted to give troops at Hungary’s borders the right to use rubber bullets, tear gas and net guns — devices that fire netting to entangle the target — in a non-lethal way “unless it cannot be avoided”.

Last week, other legislation came into force allowing Hungary to jail anyone caught crossing the border illegally, which carries a maximum fine of five years in prison.

– ‘Dedicated’ to reaching deal –

Top diplomats from Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, all of whom have rejected the EU proposal for binding refugee quotas, met in Prague on Monday with their counterpart from Luxembourg, which holds the EU presidency.

Despite their opposition to the proposal, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek insisted they were “absolutely dedicated” to reaching an agreement with fellow EU nations, acknowledging the need for “joint collective action to accelerate the solution to the still very painful situation”.

On the ground, thousands of people are still on the move across Europe, many trying to reach the perceived safe havens of Germany and Sweden, or going further afield.

In the French port city of Calais, a group of nearly 400 people — mostly Syrian refugees desperate to cross the Channel to England — were left without shelter Monday after police broke down several makeshift camps that have sprung up, firing tear gas to fend off protesters.

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