VIENNA • Europe's raging migrant crisis is set to hijack a summit of leaders from the western Balkans region and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
When tomorrow's Vienna summit was announced a year ago, the gathering of heads of government and ministers as well as European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was to be all about regional cooperation and prospects for joining the EU.
But the "western Balkans route" has now become one of the main ways into the EU for the hundreds of thousands of migrants entering the bloc this year in Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Some 102,000 migrants entered the EU via Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Montenegro or Kosovo between January and last month, versus just 8,000 for the same period last year, according to EU border agency Frontex. Last week, Macedonia declared a state of emergency after being overwhelmed by the volume of refugees entering from Greece, closing the border for three days .
At least 7,000 people have since made it to Serbia, hoping to follow the roughly 100,000 others who have crossed over into Hungary this year before a razor-wire barrier is completed by next Monday.
Summit host Austria, which borders Hungary and fellow "front line" state Italy, will present a five-point plan. It involves doing more to tackle people-trafficking gangs, a "fairer" distribution of refugees around the EU, greater security cooperation, helping countries where the migrants come from and a "pan-European asylum strategy".
"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," Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said on Monday. "We have to find a new strategy to support Greece and the western Balkan countries."
But it is not just about people fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The impoverished countries in the western Balkans, with growth non-existent, unemployment sky high and investment feeble, are also the source of huge numbers of migrants.