BRUSSELS – Seeking to allay Europe’s fast-worsening refugee crisis, a top E.U. leader proposed on Wednesday a plan to redistribute 160,000 asylum-seekers across the continent.
The plan would be one of the largest-ever, Europe-wide efforts to address any migration crisis. But with thousands of men, women and children fleeing conflict and poverty reaching the continent’s shores each day, it fell far short of the need. Nor was it clear whether all E.U. nations would support it.
Under the proposal unveiled Wednesday by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Union would allocate quotas of refugees to 22 nations across Europe. The 160,000 asylum-seekers would be spread across them, taken from the vast numbers who have already arrived in the frontline nations of Greece, Italy and Hungary.
But the actual numbers of asylum-seekers dwarfed Juncker’s plans. Germany alone expects to take in 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, and 20,000 people arrived there this weekend.
Central and Eastern European countries have been firmly opposed to requirements to take in refugees, and under European rules, any plan requires the assent of all countries in the bloc.
“Unprecedented numbers of refugees are coming to Europe at the moment,” Juncker in n impassioned speech in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “The member states where most refugees first arrive, and for the moment this is Greece, Hungary, Italy, cannot be left alone to cope with this enormous challenge.”
“We are fighting against the Islamic State. Why are we not ready to accept those who are fleeing Islamic state?” he said.
In an effort to more quickly prioritize refugees fleeing war from economic migrants, his plan would also create a list of “safe” nations whose citizens would be quickly deported. He would strengthen Europe’s border controls to try to combat the human smugglers who have profited from the influx. And Europe would set up a permanent mechanism to handle future refugee crises.
But Juncker’s plan, even if it is approved, left many questions unanswered. Rich nations such as Germany offer refugees more than $400 a month in support, plus housing. Poorer nations have far fewer resources, so most asylum-seekers desperately want to reach Western Europe.
It was not immediately clear how Europe would ensure that asylum-seekers stayed in the countries they were assigned. Nor did he offer a vision for what would happen to the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who have come above the 160,000 spots.
Under the plan unveiled Wednesday, Juncker proposed requiring 120,000 new spots be parceled across Europe. An additional 40,000 spots were agreed to earlier in the summer, but after many nations rebelled against the requirements, they were made voluntary, and not all the spaces have actually been assigned to countries. Juncker said he wanted E.U. leaders to agree to his proposal at a meeting on Monday.
The proposals came as thousands of overwhelemed migrants piled up at choke points along the route into Western Europe, causing anger and tensions along the way.
At the Serbian-Hungarian border, hundreds of people broke free from police lines to try to avoid being shunted into Hungarian migration camps. In chaotic scenes, lines of police officers tried to block the way, but there were far too asylum-seekers for authorities to contain. Men, women and children rushed across cornfields to set out for Budapest on foot.
In Greece, drama continued on the island of Lesbos, where more asylum-seekers are arriving by boat from Turkey than there are spots on ferries to move them onward to the mainland. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Tuesday that there were 20,000 people jammed into the woefully inadequate camps there. By midday Wednesday, authorities said that they had moved many of the people off the island.
In Germany, where authorities have mobilized the nation to take in the rush of new asylum-seekers, Merkel on Wednesday called for other European nations to agree to Juncker’s plan.
“If Europe fails on the question of refugees, it will waste a fundamental impulse of a united Europe,” Merkel told lawmakers in a speech in Berlin. Europe needs a “binding agreement,” she said.
But in Eastern and Central Europe, the idea to require quotas met with immediate opposition. In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said Wednesday that he believed Europe first needed to implement the more modest plans made earlier in the year.
“It is necessary to move from negotiating tables to action and to work hard on those measures that we have approved with other EU leaders and agreed on in the past months,” Sobotka said, the Associated Press reported.
The crisis has exposed deep divisions among European states. Some nations have said they are deeply opposed to taking in any asylum-seekers. Others, such as Slovakia, want only Christians.
Some of the toughest treatment has come from Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban said last week he was taking a stand to defend Europe’s “Christian roots.”
After barring the way to the asylum-seekers for days, he eventually relented and allowed a torrent to reach Western Europe. But has vowed to seal Hungary’s border by Sept. 15, and many Hungarians have been deeply unfriendly to the newcomers.
Hungarian camerawoman Petra Laszlo was captured on film on Tuesday at the Serbian-Hungarian border tripping one man carrying a young boy as he fled from police. Laszlo, who worked for a television station associated with Hungary’s extreme-right Jobbik party, was fired after the incident.
The painful images have galvanized some nations around the world to increase the number of refugees they agree to take in. In Australia on Wednesday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced plans to resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees. There has also been pressure on the United States to take in more people.
Reaction to Juncker’s plan will be a crucial test amid a crisis that has challenged European resolve like few others.
Now, the processing of migrants is handled differently from country to country. Many of the systems are rudimentary, with officials using pen and paper to record the presence of thousands of people streaming in from countries across South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
With tens of thousands of people traveling the well-worn path northward from Turkey into Europe, the process has broken down, leading to growing frustration among migrants worried that delays will jeopardize their chances of making it to Western Europe.
In Strasbourg, Juncker warned that Europe was running out of time to address the crisis before conditions became far worse for those without shelter in Hungary and on the Greek islands where they have been sailing from Turkey.
“Winter is approaching. Do we really want to have families sleeping in railway stations in Budapest and elsewhere? In tents, cold tents during the night on floors in Kos?” he said.
Witte reported from Budapest. Anthony Faiola in Berlin contributed to this report.