‘Hot spots’ for the identification of refugees in Greece and Italy must start operating by end November, European Council president Donald Tusk said in a press conference after the emergency summit in Brussels.
In EU-speak “hotspots” are teams of European border, legal and asylum experts considered key to identifying those in need of international protection among the tens of thousands of people arriving in Greece and Italy in search of sanctuary or better lives.
Angela Merkel said that it is important to strengthen the external supervision of the EU borders, but also to support economically the countries receiving refugees, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Regarding Turkey, Hollande noted that the Turkish government should give Syrian refugees who now live in its territory the possibility to work, which is currently prohibited.
Yet many are wondering when these policies will be put in place, how they will operate and whether they will provide the magic solution Europe needs.
For the moment, the “hot spot” task forces are the only proposal the European Union has to quickly respond to the unfolding humanitarian emergency, the biggest refugee crisis it has faced in decades.
Without them, EU plans to ease the pressure on Greece and Italy by distributing 160,000 refugees among other nations over the next two years cannot get off the ground.
Still, few seem to understand exactly what they are, and despite the urgent need for their deployment, the teams are not likely to be fully operational until November at best.
Once hotspots are summoned by a country under heavy migration pressure, these teams could be quickly deployed to identify, register, fingerprint and screen people for criminal backgrounds as well as to better understand the routes they use to get to Europe.
But even this plan sounds inadequate as more than 100,000 migrants and refugees entered Greece in August alone , almost all by crossing the sea from neighbouring Turkey to the east.
The idea is to identify people who are fleeing conflict or violence and thus have the right to asylum or some other form of protection, as opposed to those who have come to Europe in search of jobs and better lives, and who don’t.
It means that potential refugees will know sooner whether they can stay, and filter out those who must go home.
Italy and Greece have been so overwhelmed by the flood of people that in many cases their few reception centres have been unable to register them. Bulgaria is also considering whether to call for hotspots along its border with Turkey, which has become a temporary home to almost 2 million refugees.
The EU teams will work in cooperation with national authorities in Greece and Italy to speed up the process and ensure that common standards are applied. They will also bring language and cultural skills that local officials might not have.
“The hotspots, it’s like the magic bullet,” said the Doctors Without Borders’ humanitarian adviser Aurelie Ponthieu. “For months we’ve been operating at the borders where we’re not welcome. We didn’t have any impact, the authorities wouldn’t let us. So I would like to know how the hotspots are going to solve that?”
An estimated 3,000-4,000 people are arriving in Greece each day. DWB has been stymied in the Greek islands trying to set up tent shelters for them; whether due to bureaucracy, incompetence or obstruction is unclear.
Another controversial aspect of the approach is housing. What does a country do with thousands of people for the weeks that it might take to screen them, or for the months that it might take to organize their return home?
The Greek Refugee Council says the entire country has fewer than 2,000 places for people arriving. Under the hotspot approach, nations would have to provide facilities to hold them, raising the disturbing spectre of internment camps dotted around Greece and Italy.
In Greece, a first reception and screening centre capable of coping with almost 500 people has been planned for the island of Lesbos, a close jumping off point for people crossing from Turkey.
“This must not last too long,” French President Francois Hollande warned at the summit. “It would pose problems, holding these people who might not want to stay in these centers.”
“But we must have this procedure. It’s really important that we have these centers, and it’s going to require a lot of funding,” he said.
Despite the costs of managing the huge flow of people, German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the potential benefits from their arrival far outweigh any dangers.
“The opportunities are much bigger than the risks, we just have to recognize and use them,” she told German lawmakers Thursday.
Merkel said the EU still needs to work out a “permanent system for a fair distribution of refugees across member states.”
EU leaders managed to agree early Thursday to boost border controls to manage the influx and to send 1 billion euros to international agencies helping refugees at camps near their home countries.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who ordered a razor-wire fence built along his country’s border with Serbia to keep migrants out, said after the summit that he was willing to consider allowing them to pass through to other destinations.
Orban cited Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, who “clearly said that if we can only stop them with the fence, then we should, rather let them through. This is what must be considered.”
With thousands streaming to the Balkans, tensions have risen between Serbia and Croatia. Serbia banned imports of Croatian goods Thursday to protest the country’s closure of the border to cargo traffic, which has cut Serbia off from its main trading partners in Europe.
Croatia retaliated by barring vehicles with Serbian license plates from entering the country.
“I planned to open the border tomorrow (Thursday), but now I won’t,” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said in Brussels after Serbia retaliated. “We have to react to this now.”
Croatia shut all but one of its crossings with Serbia to block the migrant surge, which reached nearly 45,000 in a week. Croatia is angry that Serbia is busing migrants to its border, rather than sending them north to Hungary.