BERLIN — European Union nations have “agreed in principle” to relocate across the continent 160,000 refugees from Italy, Greece and Hungary, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters Monday following a meeting of EU ministers.
Meanwhile, the European Union Council reached a preliminary agreement to redistribute over the next two years 32,000 refugees from Italy and Greece, primary gateways for a flood of migrants pouring into Europe.The council hopes to raise that figure to 40,000 by December.
“The first relocations of people in need of international protection can start quickly,” European Council president Jean Asselborn said Monday.
The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates Europe has been flooded this year with more than 410,000 refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan.
The interior and justice ministers of the 28-nation EU met in Brussels Monday as Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice chancellor, warned that his country is expecting more than 1 million migrants this year, 200,000 higher that the previous estimate.
The EU is looking for member states to contribute military ships and planes for an international operation in the Mediterranean to counter human trafficking by smugglers, the Associated Press reported. If the program is approved, the ships could seize and divert vessels that are not carrying national flags in international waters, the AP said, adding that approval could take several weeks.
The EU wants to resettle 160,000 people across 22 member states to relieve pressure on Greece and Italy, but there is fierce opposition to the proposal from countries in central Europe, led by Hungary. Budapest wants the EU to take a much tougher line on keeping the migrants out by securing the bloc’s borders.
The United Nations Refugee Agency has warned that without a deal, large numbers of refugees in Europe will be left in “legal limbo,” as EU nations adopt different rules for taking in an influx of people on a scale not seen in Europe since the end of World War II.
The summit comes as train services resumed Monday between Germany and Austria after Berlin temporarily reintroduced controls on its borders to stem the flow of thousands of refugees who are making their way to Germany, which has more readily accepted applications from asylum seekers.
Austria’s Chancellor Werner Faymann told reporters Monday that the army will help at the country’s borders if required, the Austria Press Agency reported. Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner added: “If Germany carries out border controls, Austria must put strengthened border controls in place,” according to Reuters. “We are doing that now.”.
In Hungary on Sunday, police detained 5,809 migrants, breaking the previous one-day record of 4,330 set Saturday, the AP said. Because of a fence under construction aimed at sealing off Hungary’s border with Serbia, migrants have walked along railway tracks. But Hungarian authorities unveiled a razor-wire-topped cargo container Monday that can be used to temporarily close railway border gaps, according to the AP.
Hungarian police moved onto a major railway crossing point Monday near the city of Roszke to stop the foot-traffic along the tracks there and hundreds of migrants were blocked, AP reported.
Germany imposes emergency border controls.
In a separate development Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron paid a surprise visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon where he pledged an extra $150 million to help relieve suffering across the area. Britain has now contributed $1.6. Billion in aid for refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Cameron has said he will let up to 20,000 Syrian refugees resettle in Britain, but only over the next five years, and only from camps such as the one he visited in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on Monday.
Onyanga-Omara reported from London. Contributing: Gregg Zoroya in McLean, Va.