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Greece Standing By, EU Ready to Show New Migration Policy

September 18, 2020

As Greece has demanded more aid to deal with more than 100,000 refugees and migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Union will soon reveal new policies on how to deal with them, but it wasn't said yet whether that would mean other countries taking some in.

Speaking to the European Parliament to alternate applause and heckling, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said immigration policy must recognize "that each human being has a solemn diginity.”

She didn't explain why, if that's the case, that the EU has let the crisis fester for five years in Greece and allowed operation of the notorious Moria detention camp on the island of Lesbos, which human rights groups said wasn't fit for humans.

The camp burned down earlier in September and left 12,500 people sleeping on streets and sidewalks, in parking lots, fields and graveyards while the EU's support was limited to tweets and words of encouragement for Greece.

The EU closed its borders to refugees and migrants, dumping the problem largely on Greece, Italy and Malta, and other countries reneged on pledges to help take some of the overload, a few – like Hungary – openly anti-immigrant.

The current EU migration chief, Margaritis Schinas, is a member of Greece's ruling New Democracy and like his predecessor – New Democracy's Dimitris Avramopoulos – has done almost nothing to aid either and refused to take other countries to court.

The EU has been divided about what to do, including over a requirement that refugees and migrants can only seek asylum in the first country in which they land, limiting it border countries as the can't first land in Germany or Brussels.

They started coming by the hundreds of thousands in 2015 from Turkey, where they had first gone fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands, especially Afghan and Syria as well as sub-Saharan Africa.

Turkey allowed human traffickers to keep sending them after an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU, the primary destination being five nearby Greek islands, including Lesbos.

"Migration has always been a fact for Europe – and it will always be," von der Leyen said. "This is normality. We should be and we have to be able to manage that,” reported the news agency Reuters.

At one point in her speech she was interrupted by a right-wing German lawmaker, as she accused "the extreme right" of "preaching hate" on the immigration issue. "But hate has never given any good advice," von der Leyen said.

Von der Leyen, whose family has helped a Syrian refugee start a new life in Germany, said some two million people come to live in Europe legally each year, while last year just 140,000 people sought asylum.

U.N data shows 124,000 people made it to the bloc across the Mediterranean last year and 1,319 died at sea, numbers that have fallen each year since 2015, the report added.

Southern EU states where migrants arrive, such as Greece, Italy and Malta, have demanded help while more affluent northern countries where many head after their arrival, such as Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, want an approach that would see asylum seekers distributed across the bloc, rejected by Eastern states, including Poland and Hungary who refuse to accept any.

Von der Leyen said the new strategy would aim to improve migration management on the bloc's external borders, step up the fight against smugglers and reach more deals with third countries to house migrants in return for EU aid. It would create clear, legal ways to reach Europe, and improve integration programs, she added.

Sources told the news agency Reuters the proposal would still include the most contentious element: obligatory relocation of asylum seekers among all member states at times of immigration spikes but the EU has even refused to tie the rule of law to subsidies in countries such as Hungary. 

That means the proposal will fierce resistance, and months are expected to go by before member states, the Commission and European Parliament reach a deal with the refugees and migrants set to spend the winter in tents while the EU dithers again.

Germany, which now holds the EU's rotating presidency, hopes to have at least a "political road map" this year for a future agreement on migration, the report said, and agreed to take some 1,553 from Lesbos.

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