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Wounded Merkel meets Balkan leaders over migrants

Back row, L to R) Romania's Foreign Minister Dragos Tudorache, Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic, Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, Macedonian Prime Minister Emil Dimitriev and EU commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, (front row, L to R) Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama, Bulgaria's Prime minister Boyko Borissov, German chancellor Angela Merkel, Austrian chancellor Christian Kern, European Council President Donald Tusk, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbia's prime minister Aleksandar Vucic Aleksandar Vucic pose for a family photo after a meeting on the Balkan migrant route into the EU in Vienna on September 24, 2016. JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Back row, L to R) Romania’s Foreign Minister Dragos Tudorache, Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic, Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, Macedonian Prime Minister Emil Dimitriev and EU commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, (front row, L to R) Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, Bulgaria’s Prime minister Boyko Borissov, German chancellor Angela Merkel, Austrian chancellor Christian Kern, European Council President Donald Tusk, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vucic Aleksandar Vucic pose for a family photo after a meeting on the Balkan migrant route into the EU in Vienna on September 24, 2016.<br />JOE KLAMAR / AFP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hurt by a string of dismal election results over her refugees policy, was in Vienna Saturday for talks with leaders of countries along the Balkan migrant route.

They included Hungary’s premier Victor Orban, scornful of Merkel’s “open-door” stance, Alexis Tsipras of Greece, home to 60,000 stranded migrants, and Boyko Borisov of newly under-pressure Bulgaria.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said that the aim of the talks, also attended by top EU officials, was to “accelerate” momentum towards ending Europe’s worst migration crisis since 1945.

He said that this included “massively improving” the securing of the EU’s outer borders, more efforts to look after refugees in the region they come from and, longer term, a “Marshall Plan” for Africa.

“At the moment there is a range of individual measures but no common European line,” Kern told the Kleine Zeitung daily.

Last year hundreds of thousands of people, many fleeing the Syrian war, trekked up from Greece through the western Balkans northwards, particularly into Austria, Germany and Scandinavia.

Populist parties across Europe have stoked concerns about the new arrivals to boost support, not least Alternative for Germany (AfD). On Monday Merkel said the influx could have been better handled.

In March, under pressure from Austria, Balkan countries closed their borders, and the flow has since slowed dramatically, although 100-150 still make it to Austria every day, Vienna says.

The same month the EU struck a deal with Turkey — home to more than three million refugees — under which Ankara halted the influx in return for billions in aid and other sweeteners.

The pact may yet collapse, however, in the wake of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey. Kern said that the EU also needed to do similar deals with countries like Egypt and Jordan.

– Greece under strain –
Greece remains under severe strain, as illustrated by a huge fire at a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos on Monday.

An EU scheme to relocate migrants stuck in Greece and fellow hotspot Italy is massively behind expectations, while extra administrative assistance promised by the EU has been insufficient.

Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest country, is home to around 10,000 stranded migrants although Brussels has promised Sofia extra help.

A new EU border force will start operations on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey on October 6.

Not all of those attending in Vienna necessarily see eye-to-eye on how to deal with the crisis. Orban, in particular, has refused to take in a single migrant under the EU scheme.

The Hungarian prime minister has organised a referendum on October 2, seeking a vote against the mandatory division of migrants among EU members.

On Thursday he called for all illegal migrants to be deported from the European Union to “large refugee camps” on an island or in North Africa where their asylum claims could be processed.

– ‘Closed for good’ –
EU President Donald Tusk, arriving in Vienna, said that it was necessary “to confirm, politically and in practice, that the western Balkan route of irregular migration is closed for good.”

But the difficulties of making it through to the Balkans has prompted increasing numbers to attempt treacherous sea crossings from Libya or Egypt to Italy instead.

More than 300,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean this year, the UN said on Tuesday, down from 520,000 from the first nine months of 2015.

But deaths this year — 3,500 so far — could exceed last year’s total.

In the latest disaster, more than 160 migrants drowned on Friday when their overcrowded boat sank off the Egyptian coast.



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