BRUSSELS — European Union interior ministers have agreed to deliver quicker on their promises for tackling the migration crisis as EU president Luxembourg called for averting a "humanitarian catastrophe" with winter approaching.
Monday's extraordinary meeting came ahead of a special EU-Africa summit in Malta on Wednesday, focused on how to reduce the flow via Libya, a key migrant route after Turkey and the Balkans.
EU member states have come under fire from the commission, the 28-nation bloc's executive, for taking too long to act on pledges to tighten external borders, set up centres to process migrants, and relocate asylum seekers from overstretched Italy and Greece.
But their interior ministers pledged to move faster on those fronts as well as accelerate the building of shelters up through the western Balkans route from Greece, where migrants land after the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey.
"The European Union has to do everything it can to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe as winter approaches," Jean Asselborn, the Luxembourg immigration minister, told a closing press conference.
"We have to try to save people at sea... and we can't allow people to die of cold in the Balkans," said Asselborn, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
The European Commission proposed a multi-pronged plan in May to tackle the worst migrant crisis in Europe since World War II after nearly 800 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean on their way to Italy via Libya.
The crisis worsened over the summer when hundreds of thousands more people fleeing wars, persecution and poverty mainly in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Greece and the Balkans via Turkey.
More than 3,000 people have drowned among the nearly 800,000 who have reached Europe this year, and the Greek coastguard said on Monday it had discovered over 300 hidden in a yacht that ran aground near the island of Lesbos.
However, EU states have bickered for months over a joint solution, particularly over plans to relocate a total of 160,000 asylum seekers from frontline countries to other parts of the bloc.
'Speed up relocation'
The EU finally approved the relocation schemes last month in the face of fierce opposition from Hungary and other eastern member states that are grappling with an anti-immigrant backlash.
But since then only 147 asylum seekers have been relocated from Italy and Greece to countries like Sweden and Luxembourg, Asselborn said.
The ministers agreed "that all participating member states will speed up the relocation process", according to the meeting's conclusions.
The ministers also sought to pave the way for the relocations by intensifying efforts to set up centres in Greece and Italy that separate asylum seekers from economic migrants, who will be told to return to their countries of origin.
Under previous EU agreements, the handful of so-called hotspots must be up and running by the end of November.
But hotspots alone will not be able to manage the sheer numbers of migrants, with sometimes 10,000 arriving in Greece in one day, Asselborn conceded.
The ministers therefore agreed "to explore the concept of processing centres" that Asselborn said could be set up in Balkan countries both inside and outside the EU to separate asylum seekers from refugees.
But he admitted there was "no magic recipe" to reducing the flows and ending the chaos that has sown tensions through the Balkans.
Support for admitting migrants appears to have decreased in both Germany and Sweden, the most welcoming countries in Europe, as the number of arrivals has risen.
The gathering of more than 50 leaders from both the EU and Africa in Malta on Wednesday and Thursday will see an overwhelmed Europe call on Africa to take back economic migrants.
In return, Europe will offer up to 3.6 billion euros (US$3.8 billion) in development funds in a fresh thrust by the wealthy EU to tackle the wars and poverty in Africa that are among the root causes of the migration flow. — AFP