IOM: 350 000 migrants have fled to Europe this year

The International Organization for Migration said Tuesday that more than 350,000 migrants have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean this year, fleeing turmoil and poverty in the Mideast and Africa in search of a better life in Europe.

The intergovernmental agency said more than 234,000 of them landed on the shores of Greece, with another 114,000 migrants arriving in Italy, and much smaller numbers in Spain and Malta. About 2,600 have died, often drowning when rickety, overcrowded boats operated by human traffickers have sunk.

The latest figures came as Europe continued to cope with one of its biggest stream of migrants since World War II.

A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, Babar Baloch, told VOA, “All the countries have their own responsibility to deal with this crisis.” Several countries, however, are seeking to block the influx, or limit it.

Seeking asylum

In Hungary, authorities shut down and then reopened Budapest’s main train station. But hundreds of migrants, mostly from conflict-ridden areas of the Middle East, were left stranded outside, with many of them pleading with authorities to let them board trains headed to Austria and Germany.

Hungary is one of the main migrant entry points to the European Union, with more than 156,000 arriving this year.

Budapest is erecting a lengthy border fence on its southern border with Serbia, however, to keep more of them out. Defense Minister Csaba Hende told lawmakers that 3,500 soldiers could be sent to the border to cope with the migrant crisis, but deadly force would not be authorized.

Hundreds of police escorted the migrants out of Budapest’s Eastern Railway station and blocked their reentry, after an announcement over the loudspeakers ordered all passengers to evacuate.

There were no reports of clashes, unlike earlier in the day, when hundreds tried to board a Vienna-bound train but were blocked by police.

After being pushed out, the migrants congregated outside the station, where they have set up makeshift camps. Some chanted “Freedom! Freedom!” or “Germany! Germany!” — the preferred destination for many.

Austrian authorities say a total of 3,650 migrants arrived in Vienna on Monday. It was the biggest daily total this year and the latest in a staggering wave of people seeking asylum in the European Union.

When asked why officials had closed the station and stopped the flow of migrants, a Hungarian government spokesman said officials are trying to adhere to EU law.

Under EU rules, migrants must seek asylum in the first country they enter. That means Hungary is technically prevented from allowing the migrants from passing on to Austria and Germany.

The inconsistent application of the rules has left many of the migrants in limbo, since many have neither the necessary documents nor the money to purchase train tickets.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on European countries to quickly come up with a joint asylum policy, which she said would include setting up migrant registration centers at crucial transit points.

“We agree that the EU Commission should define safe countries of origin and that registration centers be set up in Italy and Greece as part of an EU joint effort,”  the German leader said at a joint news conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

While acknowledging that war refugees and others with a “persecuted background” must be “allocated in Europe,” Merkel stressed that those coming for economic reasons must be sent back to their countries.

Germany has accepted more refugees than any other European country, a total that could reach 800,000 by the end of the year.

EU disagreement

Rajoy said Spain is open to the idea of spreading the arriving migrants throughout the 28-nation EU, but made no commitment to accepting more in Spain beyond the 2,700 it already has pledged to take.

Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are among countries that have blocked a plan for European Union member states to accept specific numbers of refugees.

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico said his country “will never agree” to a quota on the number of refugees it will accept. He said most of the migrants heading to Europe from war-wracked countries in the Middle East and Africa are making the dangerous journey to Europe for economic reasons and should be returned to their homelands.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Sunday accused eastern European states, particularly Hungary, of “scandalous” policies toward migrants that go against European Union values. Budapest is building a four-meter fence along its southern border with Serbia to keep migrants from crossing into Hungary.

Hungary’s state secretary, Levente Magyar, told the national news agency the government rejected all “mean adjectives and accusations” made by Fabius.

The head of the International Organization for Migration, General William Lacy Swing, said aid groups like his are willing to help European governments deal with the influx of migrants, but that some parts of Europe needed to overcome the “fear factor” about accepting the refugees.

The 28-member EU plans to hold emergency talks on the migrant issue on September 14.


(Photo: UNHCR/S. Baltagiannis)