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‘Migrant catastrophe’ strands 10,000 between Greece and Macedonia

March 4, 2016 at 8:13 PM EST
Migrants who are waiting to cross the Greek-Macedonian sit in their tent at a makeshift camp, near the village of Idomeni, Greece, March 4, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica    TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTS9C0Q
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to the refugee crisis overwhelming Europe.

New border restrictions have left more than 10,000 migrants stranded at the crossing between Greece and Macedonia. Food and supplies are running low, and conditions worsened with an overnight downpour.

The backup also stretches south, to Athens, where hundreds spent another day in an open square. European Union and Turkish leaders will discuss the crisis at a summit on Monday.

I’m joined now by David O’Sullivan. He’s the E.U.’s ambassador to the United States.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to the program.

DAVID O’SULLIVAN, Ambassador, European Union: Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From where we sit in the United States, this migrant crisis looks like it’s gone from a disaster to a catastrophe. How do you see it?

DAVID O’SULLIVAN: Well, this is the greatest refugee crisis we have faced since the Second World War. And, of course, it’s a global crisis, not just a crisis facing Europe.

The neighboring countries of Syria have suffered hugely, large numbers of migrants in Lebanon, Jordan and, of course, Turkey. And, of course, the European Union has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers, 1.25 million last year alone, which is double from the previous year.

And this has certainly put our systems and our structures under strain. I think there has been a huge outpouring of compassion and good will by European citizens, but the fact is our systems are straining under the pressure of the outflows. And we have been struggling over the last few weeks to find a comprehensive solution.

President Tusk has been touring the region of the Balkans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He’s the head of the European Council.

DAVID O’SULLIVAN: President of the European Council.

And he has been touring in the Balkans and meeting, as you just ISIS , with the Turkish leaders. And he has just issued a letter ahead of the very important meeting which will take place on Monday, which is not only with Turkey, but also a further meeting of the European Council, indicating that he thinks there is a growing consensus emerging as to how we can find a comprehensive solution to this humanitarian tragedy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how would that work?

DAVID O’SULLIVAN: Well, it’s a solution which necessarily has many parts.

First of all, of course, we have to try and solve the problem in Syria, which is at the origin of this. We have had the cessation of hostilities. We’re very grateful for what the United States in particular is doing in trying to broker a political settlement in Syria.

We need to assist the neighboring countries, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. We’re the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to those countries. And we have just reached a new agreement to give Turkey an additional three billion euro in order to facilitate their management of the refugees within Turkey.

In addition, we’re hoping that Turkey will limit the outflow of migrants across the Aegean into Greece, because Greece is, as you have said, clearly facing unprecedented numbers and straining to cope.

And we are working to help Greece and the other front-line states better to manage the situation. We have just agreed additional funds for humanitarian purposes within the European Union, which is an unprecedented step.

And, of course, we are also looking at relocating refugees and asylum-seekers from the front-line states to other parts of the European Union in order better to distribute the burden of looking after these people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But as country after country is either closing or severely tightening their borders, doesn’t that make it much harder to find a solution here?

DAVID O’SULLIVAN: Well, I think we are seeing the closure of a number of frontiers or greater restrictions, but the fact is, we have managed to set up now reception centers in Greece, in Italy.

We are starting the process of relocating people from those centers into other parts of the European Union. We hope that these closures or these restrictions at frontiers are temporary and that they will in due course be removed once we get the situation more under control.

We will, of course, need to tighten our controls at the external frontier, not to close them, not to turn away refugees…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

DAVID O’SULLIVAN: … but just to make sure that the reception of refugees takes place in a more orderly and structured way.

And, of course, we will have to address the issue of economic migrants, who will probably not be accepted as refugees, and who will then have to return to the countries from which they came in due course.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What proportion of these migrants we’re watching stranded at the border are people who are genuinely fleeing a war zone? And how many or what percentage or, as you describe them, are looking for better economic opportunity, and they come from…

DAVID O’SULLIVAN: Difficult to have very precise numbers, but I would say the majority are indeed people fleeing from conflict, whether in Syria or in other parts of the world.

But there is also a substantial minority who clearly are trying to make their way to Europe, for understandable reasons of trying to make a better life, but not necessarily fleeing from a conflict, and they would probably not qualify under international law for refugee status or asylum.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this — we heard President Francois Hollande of France say a couple of weeks that this crisis threatens to break up the European Union. Do you think it’s that close to dissolving this organization, this European Union?

DAVID O’SULLIVAN: I don’t think the European Union is going to dissolve anytime soon.

It’s a very robust commitment of European people to the integration we have achieved to the single currency, to the economic interests and political values which bind us together. But it is true, this crisis is creating strains and stresses between our member states. And we have to absolutely find a way better to manage the crisis in order avoid that these strains become too severe.

That’s what we hope will happen at the meeting Monday. It’s a tedious process. We have 28 sovereign member states. We have the Western Balkans with Turkey trying to get a coordinated response through these different interests. Does take time, and sometimes decision-making in Europe can be slow.

But I do believe that we are slowly moving towards a new phase in the crisis, where we will be able much better to manage it from Monday on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David O’Sullivan, the European Union ambassador to the United States, thank you very much for being with us.

DAVID O’SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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