The migrant crisis continued Wednesday to split Europe into angry camps, with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposing a compulsory system to share 160,000 new arrivals among member states of the European Union. The plan was slammed as insufficient by Turkey – which along with other states neighbouring Syria is bearing the brunt of the refugee exodus – while several EU members immediately indicated they would refuse to comply with Mr. Juncker's plan.
Mr. Juncker criticized the continent for its slow response in dealing with the 500,000 migrants who have crossed Europe's frontiers so far this year. While Germany and Sweden have led the way in opening their borders to those fleeing wars and poverty, other countries have made it clear the new arrivals – a mixture of asylum-seekers and economic migrants – are not welcome on their soil.
"We are not in a good state. There is a lack of Europe in the EU and there is a lack of union in the European Union. That has to change," Mr. Juncker said in a first state-of-the-union address to European Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg. "Turning a blind eye to poor and helpless people, that is not Europe."
The planned resettlement of the 160,000 would represent less than 4 per cent of the total number of refugees caused by Syria's war alone. Germany – the dream destination of many of those travelling to Europe by boat, bus and foot from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia – has said it expects to receive up to 800,000 migrants this year, and another million people over 2016 and 2017.
Mr. Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, reminded the Parliament that Europeans, not so long ago, were the ones fleeing wars and persecution.
"We Europeans should remember well that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee. Our common history is marked by millions of Europeans fleeing from religious or political persecution, from war, dictatorship or oppression," he said.
He also said the EU should scrap the system by which asylum-seekers are required to register in the first member country they set foot in, a rule that has been ignored by many migrants as they've passed through Italy, Greece and Hungary on their way further north. Mr. Juncker called for a common EU border regime, and said rules should be loosened to allow migrants to legally work from "day one of their arrival in Europe."
But the plan was quickly rejected by the leaders of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who said they would not accept their proposed quotas – just under 3,000 for the Czech Republic, roughly half as many for Slovakia – of the asylum-seekers. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose country has seen tens of thousands of migrants cross its borders en route to Germany and other countries, has also criticized the idea of quotas, arguing it will only encourage more people to try and reach the continent.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees warned Hungary that it should prepare for the arrival of another 42,000 migrants over the next 10 days. The UNHCR said there were currently 30,000 people in Greece, 7,000 in Macedonia and 5,000 in Serbia making their way north. The Hungarian government has built a fence along its frontier with Serbia in a thus-far failed effort to stem the tide, and there were chaotic scenes at the border again on Wednesday, as migrants pushed through lines of police.
Britain, Ireland and Denmark – all of which are allowed by treaty to opt out of the new system – are also unlikely to join Mr. Juncker's quota system, although Ireland said Wednesday it would accept the relocation of 600 migrants. Denmark on Wednesday suspended train service to and from Germany, which has seen tens of thousands of new arrivals since the weekend. Thousands of migrants have sought to cross Denmark on their way to Sweden, which has Europe's most liberal asylum policies.
Data from the UNHCR shows the large majority of the new arrivals in Europe are men, women and children fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many others are fleeing dictatorial regimes like Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa. But mixed in is a third category of migrants headed to Europe hoping for better economic conditions. Many are young men from places like Pakistan, Bangladesh and West Africa.
The British government, which announced on Monday that it will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, said it would definitely opt out of Mr. Juncker's quota plan. A spokeswoman for the government said Britain was "already playing its part," despite offering to take in fewer migrants per year than are now arriving every day in the German city of Munich alone.
Prime Minister David Cameron's plan calls for the 20,000 to be drawn from those still living in the refugee camps of the Middle East, rather than from those now streaming into Europe. The large majority of the four million Syrians who have fled their country's four-year-old civil war are spread between Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu pleaded Wednesday for the EU to do more, warning against building a "Christian fortress Europe." The remark was apparently directed at Mr. Orban, who said last week that he was shutting his country's border because he wanted to "keep Europe Christian." The leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have also said they are willing to take in only Christian refugees.
"It is high time for Europe to look in the mirror, be honest about what it sees in the reflection, to stop procrastinating and start assuming more than its fair share of the burden. Radical politicians must not be allowed to pull the wool over the eyes of the European people," Mr. Davutoglu wrote in a column for the British newspaper the Guardian.
Analysts say the U.K. government is trapped between pressure to do more to help the asylum-seekers, and worries that the migration crisis could influence an in-or-out referendum on Britain's membership in the EU that is expected to be held next year. Mr. Cameron, who has promised to hold the referendum by 2017, favours remaining in the union, but the issue divides his own Conservative Party.
A poll published Sunday found 51 per cent of British voters now said they were leaning toward voting to leave the EU, up from 46 per cent in a July poll conducted by the same company, Survation. Furthermore, one-fifth of those who said they favoured remaining in the EU said they could change their mind "if the migrant crisis in Europe continues to get worse."
While the trainloads of migrants have been greeted in Germany and Austria with applause, sympathy and donated food in recent days, there are already signs of a growing backlash. A march by Pegida – a German group protesting the "Islamization of the West" – drew a reported 6,500 people on Monday in Dresden, the group's largest turnout in months. Pegida's U.K. affiliate announced it would hold a rally in the centre of London on Sept. 19.
Mr. Juncker criticized those who wanted to turn back migrants on the basis of their religion.
"Europe has made the mistake in the past of distinguishing between Jews, Christians, Muslims. There is no religion, no belief, no philosophy when it comes to refugees," he said. "It is Europe today that represents a beacon of hope, a haven of stability in the eyes of women and men in the Middle East and in Africa. That is something to be proud of and not something to fear."