18 September 2015

“This is a moment of truth for the European Union. Either it acts, or it will become irrelevant in international affairs”, High Commissioner António Guterres said at a press conference in Brussels on 15 September.

Guterres compared the situation now to the aftermath of the Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956, when 200,000 Hungarians escaped their home country.

“At that time, there was no Schengen, not even the EU Treaty of Rome,” Mr. Guterres said. “In the end, 180,000 were resettled from Austria and Yugoslavia to a total of 37 different countries – the first 100,000 of them in under ten weeks. The European Union did not make the same progress, which I regret”, he said, showing deep disappointment with the meagre results of Monday’s extraordinary meeting of the EU interior ministers and its failure to agree on a scheme spreading 120,000 people across the Member States.

Guterres criticised the newly established border controls in some countries that, according to him, create a very “worrisome situation for UNHCR”. “Borders will make people suffer, and facilitate the situation for smugglers and opportunists.” Last week, the head of the UN refugee agency laid out a set of key guidelines which he said should underpin all efforts to resolve the current refugee and migration crisis facing Europe.  The European Union, he said, faced a “defining moment” while facing a situation that primarily is a refugee crisis, not only a migration phenomenon.

“In an ideal world, there would be a common European asylum policy and refugees could move freely within the EU. But that is not the case”, said Mr. Guterres, calling for legal alternatives to reach safety in Europe. With legal ways, fewer people in need of international protection will be forced to resort to smugglers and undertake dangerous, irregular journeys.

“A plan B is necessary. We can’t wait until October for another meeting of the European Council who then reverts back to the European Parliament, then back to the European Council… the Union has 500 million people – it’s a manageable situation, it only needs to be managed.”

High Commissioner Guterres also said that Hungary’s decision effectively to seal its border to refugees meant there was an immediate need to help Serbia cope with the expected deadlock. With 4,000 passing through Serbia every day hoping to get into Hungary, Guterres said Belgrade would not be able to manage the situation. “There is a need for an emergency plan to support Serbia,” he said.

Turning back refugees from the EU into the Balkans was “legally, morally and physically unacceptable,” he added.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 18 September 2015. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.