Austria’s Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told German newspaper “Die Welt” on Thursday that the route would not be re-opened. “My position is clear: the Balkan route remains closed and that permanently,” Mikl-Leitner told the newspaper.
EU interior ministers are now set to meet in Brussels on Thursday to discuss the migrant crisis after western Balkan nations slammed shut their borders, exacerbating a dire humanitarian situation on the Macedonian frontier.
The scheduled two-day meeting will tackle various areas including a proposed deal with Turkey and the restoration of the visa-free Schengen zone, along with plans for a European border and coastguard system seen as a key step for securing the bloc’s frontiers.
For months now, central European leaders have been advocating that the EU’s external border should be strengthened to allow the Schengen zone to survive.
The talks come after Slovenia and Croatia, two of the countries along the Balkan route used by hundreds of thousands of people in recent months, barred entry to transiting migrants from midnight Wednesday and Serbia indicated it would follow suit.
EU member Slovenia said it would make exceptions only for migrants wishing to claim asylum in the country or for those seeking entry “on humanitarian grounds and in accordance with the rules of the Schengen zone”.
Prime Minister Miro Cerar said the move meant that “the (Balkan) route for illegal migrations no longer exists”, while EU President Donald Tusk said on Twitter, “Irregular flows of migrants along Western Balkans route have come to an end”.
“Not a question of unilateral actions but common EU28 decision… I thank Western Balkan countries for implementing part of EU’s comprehensive strategy to deal with migration crisis,” Tusk added.
Mikl-Leitner, added that the “uncontrolled mass influx of migrants via this route must belong to history.”
As the 28-nation EU battles the worst migration crisis since World War II, the fresh measures ramped up the pressure on the bloc to seal a proposed deal with Turkey to ease the chaos and tackle the growing humanitarian crisis developing in Greece, where thousands of migrants are now stuck.
A demand too far?
A controversial deal discussed with Turkey at an EU summit on Monday and due to be finalised on March 17-18 would see the country take back all illegal migrants landing in Greece.
Ankara proposed an arrangement under which the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey in exchange for every Syrian that Turkey takes from Greece, in a bid to reduce the incentive for people to board boats for Europe.
In return though, Turkey wants six billion euros (£4.6 billion, $6.6 billion) in aid, visa-free access to Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone and a speeding up of Ankara’s efforts to join the EU — demands that go too far for some.
The country currently hosts 2.7 million refugees from the five-year-old Syrian civil war and is the main springboard for migrants heading to the EU.
The UN and human rights groups quickly warned against sending back all irregular migrants to Turkey in exchange for political and financial rewards and said the deal could be illegal.
“I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said.
Hoping for a ‘miracle’
Authorities in Greece, the main entry point into the EU across the sea from Turkey, said on Thursday that nearly 42,000 migrants were now stranded there. Police said a further 4,000 were unaccounted for.
Around 14,000 people are now staying near the border town of Idomeni, many in small tents normally used by summer vacationers.
Government health experts at the camp say there is no sign yet of an infectious disease outbreak, but have been urging refugees at Idomeni to move to nearby army-built shelters as Greek authorities report that some 70 children living at the camp have received hospital treatment over the past three days, for fever and diarrhoea.
Macedonia has not let anyone enter since Monday.
“We are hoping a miracle will happen,” said Ola, a 15-year-old from war-scarred Aleppo who has lived in a tent at Idomeni with her mother and two younger brothers for two weeks. “We thought Germany wanted us. That’s why we took the boat and came here.”
Greek officials on Wednesday were trying to coax refugees to leave Idomeni for migrant centres elsewhere in the country. Many are reluctant to do so, however, fearing this would mean the end of their journey north.
But Greece is not the only country where refugees are now stuck. The UN refugee agency estimated Wednesday there were also as many as 2,000 migrants stuck in Serbia. And hundreds of people are also stuck in Hungary as Serbia has refused to take back any refugees.
There are fears that some will turn to people-smugglers and try their luck getting into Albania, and from there to Italy, or into Bulgaria.
Austria’s interior minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, says refugees stuck at the Greece-Macedonia must understand that they have no chance of crossing. She told reporters in Brussels that “the most honest thing is to tell the refugees: it’s impossible to get through the Balkan route anymore. The Balkan route is closed.”
“The biggest problem is that these refugees still have hopes and expectations, and these hopes are being constantly fed,” Milk-Leitner said.
More than a million people have crossed the Aegean Sea into Greece since the start of 2015, many from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and most aiming to reach wealthy Germany, Austria and Scandinavia.
This has caused deep divisions among EU members about how to deal with the crisis and put German Chancellor Angela Merkel under severe pressure domestically for her open-door asylum policy.
Speaking during a visit to Washington on Wednesday, Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen said Merkel had underestimated how many people would arrive after “sending out invitations to refugees around the world”.
According to data from the UNHCR, more than 141,000 migrants have already reached European shores this year, and 410 people have died while attempting the crossing of the Aegean Sea.
Turkey’s state-run agency says five migrants, including a 3-month-old baby, drowned on Thursday when a speed boat taking them to Greece sank.