Humanitarian fears hang over Balkans migrant talks

Austria is hosting talks on Wednesday with countries along the well-trodden migrant path through the western Balkans to northern Europe, as tighter border controls raise fears of a humanitarian crisis, particularly in Greece.

Humanitarian fears hang over Balkans migrant talks
Refugees at the Austrian border. File photo: APA

But Athens has angrily protested at being excluded from the ministerial meeting in Vienna, underscoring the rifts in Europe over how to tackle the crisis.

The talks come after figures showed that Europe's migrant headache was continuing to rage, with over 110,000 people arriving in Greece and Italy so far this year alone, following more than one million in 2015.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 31,000 of this year's arrivals were fleeing the Syrian civil war. A total of 413 people lost their lives on the journey, including 321 on the way to Greece.

The influx has fuelled unease in Europe, boosted populist parties, driven a wedge among many of the 28 members of the European Union and thrown into doubt the continent's cherished passport-free Schengen Zone that is crucial for commerce.

Amnesty International has criticised Europe's “shameful” response, saying most EU countries had “simply decided that the protection of their borders is more important than the protection of the rights of refugees”.

So far joint EU efforts to halt the influx, including a deal with Turkey to stem the mass exodus of migrants across the sea to Greece, have failed to bear fruit.

As a result, countries throughout the western Balkans have begun unilaterally to impose restrictions, sparked by Austria's much-criticised introduction last week of daily migrant limits.
Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leiter said as she opened the Vienna meeting that in the absence of a functioning EU strategy, the talks would discuss ways “to stop the migrant influx through the Balkans”.

“We believe in European measures and we are working on them. But while we wait we have to take national measures,” she said.

In the latest such move, Macedonia has closed its frontier to Afghans and introduced more stringent document checks for Syrians and Iraqis seeking to travel to northern and western Europe.

The move caused a bottleneck at the Greek-Macedonian border — where nearly 4,000 people were waiting to get through on Tuesday — and forced Greek police to keep hundreds of others from travelling to the frontier.

On the Greek side, Afghan families boarded nearly a dozen buses for the long trip back to the capital, where they will be temporarily housed in relocation camps, police said.

Skopje said its move followed decisions by countries further up the western Balkan migrant route to turn back groups of Afghans, while Serbia announced a similar stance.

“There is no sense in expecting Serbia to agree to receive migrants about whom we receive clear signals from Austria, Slovenia and Croatia that they will not be allowed in these countries,” Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said.
'Chaos and confusion'
EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Dutch Migration Minister Klaas Dijkhoff said they were “concerned” by developments in the Balkans and by the “humanitarian crisis that might unfold”.
Their fears were echoed by Filippo Grandi, the new head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR on a visit Tuesday to the Greek island of Lesbos, a main landing point after the perilous sea crossing for migrants from Turkey.

“I am very worried about the news that we are getting about increasing closures of European borders along the Balkans route because that will create further chaos and confusion,” Grandi said.
Cash-strapped Greece, struggling to cope as the main entry point for migrants into the EU, was however not invited to the Vienna meeting of ministers from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
“Through this one-sided and not at all friendly move towards our country, there is an attempt to take decisions in Greece's absence that directly affect Greece and Greek borders,” the Greek foreign ministry complained.

Austria, which controversially last week imposed a daily limit of 80 asylum claims, retorted that it was a “fixed” meeting format and its summary would be available to EU interior and justice ministers when they meet on Thursday in Brussels.
Austria's Foreign Minister said that Greece “is not prepared at present to reduce the influx… On the contrary it wants to continue waving them through”.


‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.