EU seeks agreement for countries to share 160,000 refugees

BRUSSELS: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday called on EU countries to agree by next week to share 160,000 refugees, warning that Greece, Italy and Hungary can no longer cope alone.

In an impassioned appeal at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Juncker unveiled a list of new proposals to help Europe confront its biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

"The refugee crisis will not simply go away," Juncker told EU lawmakers, noting that some 500,000 migrants have entered Europe this year, many from conflict-torn Syria and Libya. "It is high time to act."

"We are fighting against Islamic State, why are we not ready to accept those who are fleeing Islamic State?" he said.

Juncker unveiled a new plan for 22 of the EU's 28 states to share 120,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary, on top of a proposal the EU's executive made in May to share 40,000 refugees from just Greece and Italy. Britain, Ireland and Denmark are not legally bound to take part. Greece, Italy and Hungary of course are not included.

Hungary estimates that more than 160,000 people have crossed its borders alone this year.

The EU's first refugee plan never won full support, and only around 32,000 refugees have been allocated. Hungary was among the countries to reject it, along with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.

Juncker wants both plans endorsed on Monday at a meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels. "This has to be done in a compulsory way," he said.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed the new plan and also called for it to be made compulsory.

"We need a binding agreement on a binding distribution of refugees among all member states, according to fair criteria," Merkel said. Germany has taken in more migrants than any other EU country, and would have to accept more than 31,000 more under the scheme.

On Monday, France threw its weight behind the EU plan by saying that it would take in 24,000 refugees this year, exactly the figure the new scheme calls for. Britain, which is not taking part, announced separately that it would welcome up to 20,000 refugees currently in countries outside of the EU over the next five years.

This new response marks a shift to rapid humanitarian action as the EU begins to realize that longer-term policy moves are ill-adapted to the scale of the refugee emergency.

Juncker also announced a list of "safe countries" including Albania and Kosovo, from which thousands of people have fled this year.

The "safe country" tag is likely to mean that few asylum applications by nationals from those countries are likely to succeed as these people would be hard-pressed to justify violence or persecution against them.

Longer-term, the Commission also unveiled a plan to set up a 1.8 billion-euro ($2 billion) fund to help African nations better manage their borders and help reduce the number of migrants heading for Europe.