Merkel, Hollande urge unified EU response to refugee crisis

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and French President Francois Hollande want a unified European response to the refugee crisis (AFP Photo/Tobias Schwarz)
Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande called Monday for a unified response to Europe\’s biggest migrant crisis since World War II, as the German leader condemned "vile" protests against refugees.
"We must put in place a unified system for the right to asylum," Hollande said in a brief statement ahead of talks, calling the influx from the world\’s crisis zones "an exceptional situation that will last for some time".
"Rather than wait, we should organise and reinforce our policies, and that is what France and Germany are proposing," he said.
Both countries, like the rest of the EU, have been struggling to find a response to the unprecedented numbers arriving — from the thousands landing on the shores of Greece and Italy to the hundreds risking their lives to climb onto trucks to travel from France to Britain.
Germany, which expects to take in 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015, saw anti-migrant sentiment rear its head over the weekend as violent protests erupted against a refugee home.
"It is vile for far-right extremists and neo-Nazis to try to spread their hollow, hateful propaganda but it is just as shameful for citizens including families with children to join them" in the protests, said Merkel in her strongest statement to date against a wave of anti-refugee protests to hit eastern Germany.
EU border agency Frontex said last week that a record 107,000 migrants were at the bloc\’s borders last month, with 20,800 arriving in Greece last week alone.
In what has become a regular occurrence, Greece\’s coastguard said Monday it recovered the bodies of two migrants who drowned when their boat sank off its shores. Another five were missing.
And at least 2,000 more migrants poured into Serbia overnight from Macedonia on their trek north through Hungary to more prosperous northern European countries like Germany or Sweden.
Macedonia had declared a state of emergency last week and closed its border with Greece for three days, with police using stun grenades and batons to stop hundreds of refugees trying to break through barbed wire fencing before apparently deciding to let everyone enter.
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who had travelled to the Macedonia-Greece border, called for an urgent new strategy to deal with the crisis.
"It\’s a humanitarian disaster, a disaster for the European Union as a whole, and there is a pressing need for us to focus on the situation in the western Balkans," said Kurz.
With asylum-seekers coming not just from war zones such as Syria but also from countries without military conflict in southeastern Europe, both Hollande and Merkel reiterated their calls for Brussels to draw up a list of safe countries of origin.
Germany in particular sees this as a priority, as 40 percent of its asylum-seekers come from countries like Albania and Kosovo.
Merkel is travelling Thursday to Vienna, where she will meet leaders of Balkan states including Albania and Kosovo to find out why "so many thousands of people are coming from these countries", her spokesman Steffen Seibert said.
Other coordinated action sought by Hollande and Merkel include the rapid setting up of reception centres in overwhelmed Greece and Italy — two countries which have borne the brunt of the crisis — to help identify asylum-seekers and illegal migrants.
Merkel stressed that the centres must be set up at the first ports of call to be administered and staffed by the EU as a whole by the end of the year.
"We cannot tolerate a delay," she said.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni has warned that the deepening crisis could pose a major threat to the "soul" of Europe.
"On immigration, Europe is in danger of displaying the worst of itself: selfishness, haphazard decision-making and rows between member states," Gentiloni told Il Messaggero.
Beyond the migrant crisis, Merkel and Hollande will later Monday tackle another issue pressing at the EU\’s eastern flank — the Ukraine conflict.
The talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko come amid a resurgence of violence in the former Soviet state.
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