BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s interior ministers will try late on Thursday to bridge deep divisions over how to handle refugees and migrants, but a proposal by the bloc’s current president Slovakia has already drawn an angry response from Italy.
A deal between the EU and Turkey has sharply cut the number of migrants entering Europe via Greece this year, but the numbers trying to cross from Africa to Italy continue to rise and tens of thousands more remain holed up in detention centers, waiting to be relocated among the bloc’s member states.
Under a plan to be presented over dinner by Slovak Interior Minister Robert Kalinak, EU states that refuse to take in their share of migrants would instead be able to offer more money or play a bigger role in policing the bloc’s external borders or in assuming greater responsibility for deporting people who do not qualify for asylum.
The Slovak document, seen by Reuters, also says that at times of “exceptionally high number of arrivals” EU states should agree emergency measures but “on a voluntary basis”.
A diplomat from Italy, a frontline state in the migrant crisis, branded the plan “highly unsatisfactory”. Other diplomats said Germany, which has taken in more than a million migrants over the past year, was also very unimpressed.
Slovakia and three other eastern states - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - have been refusing to take in refugees and migrants from Italy and Greece, citing security concerns. They oppose fixed relocation quotas the bloc agreed last year.
Hungary’s prime minister and some other politicians in the region have said the mainly Muslim migrants pose a threat to Europe’s Christian civilization, a stance criticized by Germany, Sweden and others.
A spokeswoman for the EU mission of Malta, which takes over the bloc’s rotating six-month presidency in January, said the tiny Mediterranean island would seek an accord that includes “mandatory relocation”, the very opposite of the Slovak plan.
The EU has suspended its cherished Schengen zone of free travel amid the feuding over migration. Of 160,000 people the EU states agreed last year to relocate from Greece and Italy, fewer than 7,500 have moved so far.
However, the easterners show little sign of budging, with Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski telling reporters in Brussels on Thursday: “Poland’s refugee and migration policy will only be shaped in Warsaw, nowhere else.”
While the controversial deal with Turkey has cut the number of migrants arriving in the Greek islands, the EU border agency Frontex said this week the number of people arriving in Italy from north Africa last month reached a monthly record of 27,500.
Data from the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR shows the number of people arriving in Italy by sea this year has reached 167,091 so far, already above the 153,842 reported for the whole of 2015.
Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeier, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Gareth Jones