Migrants the focus at Vienna summit

Forensic officers behind a truck, where at least 20 dead migrants were found, near Neusiedl am See, Austria, yesterday.
Forensic officers behind a truck, where at least 20 dead migrants were found, near Neusiedl am See, Austria, yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Talks come amid criticism of EU's failure to tackle migration crisis

VIENNA • German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Balkan leaders gathered in Vienna to tackle the biggest migration crisis to hit Europe since World War II.

Yesterday's talks came a day after Dr Merkel vowed zero tolerance for "vile" anti-migrant violence in Germany, amid growing criticism of the European Union's failure to agree to a joint response.

The talks also came amid the gruesome discovery of migrants who were found dead inside a truck on a highway in Austria yesterday.

Mr Hans Peter Doskozil, police chief in the province of Burgenland, said he could not put an exact figure on the number of victims. "We can assume that it could be 20 people who died. It could also be 40, it could be 50 people," he said. He added that the authorities could not confirm how the migrants died.

Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner announced Austria would tighten its border controls and intensify checks on international trains in the coming weeks.

In Vienna, countries which took part in the summit included Macedonia and Serbia, two major transit nations for the thousands of migrants trying to enter the EU by taking the so-called "western Balkans route". The foreign ministers of both countries called for a concerted EU action plan .

However, EU member Hungary, the bloc's main entry point for migrants arriving by land along the Balkans route, did not attend.

The daily number of people crossing into Hungary hit a new high on Wednesday, topping 3,000, including nearly 700 children, police figures showed. Hungarian lawmakers will debate next week whether to deploy troops to stem the influx.

United Nations refugee chief Antonio Guterres and French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called for the urgent creation of more processing centres to sort refugees fleeing war from economic migrants simply in search of a better life.

Originally meant to focus on EU enlargement, the Balkans summit in Vienna has been hijacked by what organisers have described as "the migrant challenge".

Ahead of the conference, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz warned that his country would consider introducing tougher anti-migration measures if the EU failed to come up with a unified response.

With no common European response, governments have approached the problem in various ways. While Hungary's conservative government is building a 175km razor-wire barrier to keep migrants out, Czech Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babis has called for the EU's visa-free Schengen zone to be closed with the help of Nato troops.

Germany, which is preparing to receive a record 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, has eased the asylum application procedure for Syrians fleeing the country's brutal civil war.

But Berlin's largesse has not been welcomed by everyone at home, particularly in the east where a spate of attacks has targeted refugee centres. On her visit to a migrant shelter in the eastern town of Heidenau on Wednesday, Dr Merkel was greeted by about 200 protesters, some booing and shouting "traitor, traitor".

But she vowed: "There will be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2015, with the headline 'Migrants the focus at Vienna summit'. Print Edition | Subscribe