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A police officer stands on the tracks next to migrants waiting for a train at a station in Demir Kapija, south-eastern Macedonia, on June 18, 2015 on their way to the Serbian border. Migrants from impoverished and war-torn countries in Africa, the Middle East and central and south Asia walk through Macedonia along the line to reach Serbia as they head north from Greece in the hope of crossing the European Union border into Romania, Hungary and Croatia.

ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP / Getty Images

With each passing week, the breadth of the migrant crisis facing Europe and the strains it is creating among countries becomes starker.

On Tuesday, a strike in the French port of Calais slowed down truck traffic heading toward England. Seizing their chance to make the hazardous crossing, hundreds of migrants waiting near the coast jumped into the vehicles.

Just as Europeans were digesting the dramatic images from France, they received another shock: In an unprecedented move, Hungary briefly suspended its co-operation with European Union asylum rules, claiming it was being overwhelmed by illegal immigration.

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On Thursday, political leaders from the 28-member bloc began a summit meeting in Brussels with the goal of forging a fresh response to the challenge.

The EU has already stepped up rescue operations in the Mediterranean and is exploring ways to disrupt smuggling networks. The task this week: figuring out how to share the responsibility for the thousands of often desperate people who are flowing into a handful of European countries, primarily Greece and Italy.

But finding a plan that the assembled countries can agree upon turned out to be excruciatingly difficult. After hours of discussion Thursday and into the early hours of Friday in Brussels, there was still no deal.

A draft proposal circulated earlier would make only a modicum of progress. Under the proposal, the leaders would agree to relocate about 40,000 asylum seekers currently in Greece and Italy across the EU over the next two years. How many each country would accept and whether that commitment would be binding remains unclear.

Countries such as Germany had pushed for a mandatory scheme that would distribute refugees based on a country's size and economic heft. That ran into adamant opposition from smaller countries in central Europe and the Baltics.

A voluntary scheme "cannot be an excuse to do nothing," Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, the body composed of the 28 EU leaders, said earlier Thursday. "Solidarity without sacrifice is pure hypocrisy."

Experts and activists say the numbers under discussion by EU leaders – relocating 40,000 asylum seekers and resettling a further 20,000 from their countries of origin – are far too small. Last week, the United Nations said that 60 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes, the highest level since records started being kept.

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The proposal under discussion at the summit "is a step forward for the European Union," Elizabeth Collett, director of Migration Policy Institute Europe in Brussels, said. But in the global context, the numbers "are really tiny with respect to protection needs."

Judith Sunderland, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Europe, said the EU debate had "degenerated into a race to see which country would do the least, rather than the most." The next stage will be "more unbecoming haggling, with the lives and well-being of some of the world's most vulnerable people in the balance."

Since the start of the year, nearly 100,000 migrants have entered Europe via the Mediterranean, according to data from the International Organization for Migration. It estimates that 1,865 people have died attempting the crossing in the same time period. Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea are the sources of the largest numbers of migrants. The EU considers the vast majority of those from Syria and Eritrea to be bona fide refugees.

Under the current system, known as the Dublin Regulation, refugees must request asylum in the European country where they first arrive. But in practice, overburdened countries at Europe's periphery tacitly or not-so-tacitly encourage them to move on. Many asylum seekers, too, prefer to apply for refugee status in countries such as Sweden or Germany, or in countries where they already have relatives or support networks.

The current system, conceived in the 1990s, is straining under the rising flows. Last year, 626,000 people applied for asylum in the European Union, the highest figure in more than two decades and an increase of 45 per cent over 2013. In three EU states – Italy, Hungary and Denmark – the number of asylum applicants doubled in 2014 compared with a year earlier.

In Hungary, the rising number of refugees and migrants entering its territory has turned into a political firestorm. For about 24 hours earlier this week, it suspended its co-operation with EU rules, which provide that asylum seekers can be returned to the country where they first arrived to have their refugee claims processed. The country's government also said it plans to build a wall on its border with Serbia to keep out migrants, sparking the ire of its neighbour.

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"Europe must decide whether the time of building walls belongs to the past or to the future," Serbia's Foreign Minister, Ivica Dacic, said on Thursday, according to the Associated Press. "I thought the Berlin Wall has fallen, but now new walls are being constructed."

Hungary fiercely opposed any mandatory pan-European quota for relocating refugees. The draft proposal under discussion at the summit also envisions a special "high-level" conference to address the issue of migration via what's known as the Western Balkan route, which leads to Hungary.

The debate over migration raises difficult questions about how much responsibility EU countries owe to one another, Steven Peers, a law professor and immigration expert at the University of Essex, said. Are the challenges posed by higher migration up to each country to tackle, or "do we see it as an EU-wide issue and really make a significant contribution?"

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