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With winter fast approaching, the European Union (EU) and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have agreed to create enough shelter space to house 100,000 migrants and refugees traveling through Greece and the Balkans to Europe.
The expanded shelter program was announced on Sunday after leaders from 10 EU states and three Balkan countries — Serbia, Macedonia, and Albania — gathered in Belgium to discuss ways to address the migrant crisis, including plans to tighten borders and increase deportations.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said after the mini-summit that the assembled leaders signed off on new measures — including a 17-point "action plan" — to "slow down the uncontrolled flow of people" into Europe.
"Every day counts," Juncker said. "Otherwise we will soon see families in cold rivers in the Balkans perish miserably." He added that the EU's priority is "to ensure people are not left to fend for themselves in the rain and cold."
The plan calls for creating shelter space for up to 30,000 migrants and refugees this year in Greece, with room for an additional 20,000 people planned for the near future.
'It's a good idea not to leave people out in the wild, but it's a very short-term solution.'
"It's a good idea not to leave people out in the wild, but it's a very short-term solution," said Catherine de Wenden, an expert on international migration at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) at Sciences Po in Paris. "The shelters in which we are creating the extra places are located in countries that are experiencing economic hardship. These people will inevitably end up leaving again, and [will head] to Germany, for example, to find work."
The EU leaders also agreed to work together to repatriate migrants "not in need of international protection." According to the new plan, asylum seekers will have to file their claim in the country where they enter Europe — usually Greece — not in the country where they wish to settle. Those who do not qualify for asylum under the Geneva Conventions will be "returned" to their homeland. Migrants who refuse to register in the country in which they first enter Europe will face immediate deportation.
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One of the aims of the summit was to reduce the ongoing regional tensions over how to best tackle the migrant crisis. "Countries affected should not only talk about and at each other but also with each other," Juncker said. "Neighbors should work together not against each other."
Speaking before the summit, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar called for more solidarity among the nations affected by the crisis, and warned that if the EU failed to reach an agreement, Europe would "start falling apart."
Some of the region's states have accused each other of mishandling the flow of migrants and easing their own border restrictions in order to "dump" migrants in neighboring countries. The summit participants pledged to "discourage the movement of refugees or migrants to the border of another country of the region."
Slovenian authorities have accused Croatia of letting migrants cross into Slovenia by the thousands. The country has received nearly 60,000 people in the past few days. EU leaders agreed to deploy an extra 400 EU police officers to help secure the Slovenian border.
As part of the new plan, EU leaders have also agreed to step up efforts to secure borders by strengthening the operations of European border patrol agency Frontex along the western Balkans route, at the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, and in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray