BRUSSELS – The European Union implored its member countries Wednesday to better share the burden of refugees flooding the continent, but the numbers involved were small compared with the half-million who have already arrived and the hundreds of thousands more on their way.
With Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans often hoping to settle in wealthy nations like Germany and Sweden, the EU is struggling find a more equitable solution that would also send a fair share of refugees to less-desirable and less-welcoming places such as Slovakia and the Baltics.
Hours after EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Europe had a historic duty to act and relocate 160,000 who have arrived in overwhelmed Hungary, Greece and Italy, a number of Eastern European and Baltic states vowed to reject the imposition of any kind of quotas from Brussels.
The plan is a drop in the ocean for an economic power like the EU, where a half-billion people live, compared with efforts by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which are hosting more than 4 million refugees, mostly from Syria.
But despite the troubling scenes of drowned children on beaches, or thousands of people running at razor-wire fences or crammed into buses and trains, the 28 nations simply cannot agree on modest proposals, let alone profound ways to tackle Europe’s biggest refugee emergency since World War II.
With battle lines drawn, the scene is set for an ugly confrontation when EU interior ministers meet Sept. 14.
“If all the focus is on redistributing quotas of refugees around Europe, that won’t solve the problem, and it actually sends a message that it is a good idea to get on a boat and make that perilous journey,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told lawmakers in London.
In the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Juncker said that now is the time for action because “the refugee crisis will not simply go away.” He underlined that 500,000 migrants have entered Europe this year, many from Syria and Libya.
“Imagine for a second it were you, your child in your arms, the world you knew torn apart around you,” Juncker said. “There is no wall you would not climb, no sea you would not sail, no border you would not cross.”
The Commission’s new plan involves sharing 120,000 refugees from Greece, Italy and Hungary among 22 member states, 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 are too overwhelmed to participate.
Despite the urgency, the EU’s first refugee plan never won full support, and only about 32,000 refugees have been allocated. Hungary was among the countries to reject it, along with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 378,000 people have entered Europe this year, including over 256,000 crossing the sea to Greece and nearly 120,000 braving the Mediterranean to reach Italy.
Hungary estimates that more than 160,000 have crossed its borders alone this year. The U.N. refugee agency warned Tuesday that 42,000 could arrive there in the next 10 days.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed the new immigration 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 in Berlin. Germany has taken in more than any other EU country and would have to accept over 31,000 more under the plan.
On Monday, France threw its weight behind the EU plan by saying it would take in 24,000 refugees this year, exactly the figure proposed.
Britain, which is not taking part, said separately that over the next five years, it would welcome up to 20,000 refugees currently in countries outside the EU. Ireland is also taking 520 refugees from camps outside Europe.
But Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said his government’s opposition to mandatory quotas for migrants has not softened.
“The compulsory quotas are not a good solution,” Sobotka said in a statement. “To continue with a discussion about their establishment all across Europe only prevents us from taking really important and necessary steps.”
The Czechs say most migrants are heading for Germany and don’t want to stay in the Czech Republic anyway. Hungary has also made a similar argument.
Estonia’s social welfare minister, Margus Tsahkna, insisted that “each country should be able to decide how many refugees it is willing to accept. This decision shouldn’t be in the hands of the EU Commission.”
Train service between Germany and Denmark was halted Wednesday after Danish police stopped hundreds of migrants who had arrived by rail across the border, the Danish railway company DSB said.
About 100 people who had arrived from Germany have refused to leave a train in the Danish port of Roedby and they do not want to be registered in Denmark, said police spokeswoman Anne Soe. Many want to go to Sweden, Norway or Finland, because they have relatives there or believe that conditions there for asylum-seekers are better.
Under EU rules, people seeking asylum should do so in the first EU country they enter.
Geir Moulson in Berlin, Karel Janicek in Prague and Jari Tanner in Tallinn contributed to this report.