'Panic' as Europe faces demise over refugees, top officials say

Alex Pigman, Nicolas Revise
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Migrants and refugees walk on a snow covered street after crossing the Macedonian border into Serbia near the village of Miratovac on January 17, 2016

Migrants and refugees walk on a snow covered street after crossing the Macedonian border into Serbia near the village of Miratovac on January 17, 2016 (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

Davos (Switzerland) (AFP) - Time is running out to solve Europe's refugee crisis with the unity of the continent hanging in the balance, top officials at the elite World Economic Forum in Davos said Friday.

Discussions about the waves of refugees still making their way to Europe were on many people's lips in the Swiss ski resort, with opinions ranging from calls for an ageing Europe to seize an opportunity to stark warnings of impending disaster.

"We have a few weeks to concretely deliver our options... otherwise you have country-by-country solutions (and that is) the beginning of the dismantling for sure," Emmanuel Macron, the French economy minister, told an audience of billionaires and business leaders.

The incessant flow of now over one million refugees to Europe from war-torn Syria and Iraq has handed the EU yet another crisis, following last year's debt battles with Greece and the face-off with Russia over Ukraine.

The confirmation that at least 45 migrants drowned off the coast of Turkey and Greece early on Friday seeped into the usually upbeat Davos meetings.

Macron's bleak assessment followed a warning by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who said Europe only had six to eight weeks left to solve the refugee problem.

"When spring comes and the numbers quadruple, we cannot as the EU cope with the numbers any longer," Rutte said.

But Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said his fellow Europeans overlooked migration coming to Poland from war-torn Ukraine, a burden not adequately acknowledged in Brussels, the EU capital.

"We are alone in handling this crisis," the eurosceptic Polish minister said, while adding that the refugees from Syria and Iraq, despite all the problems, were now safe.

EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini warned against the hypocrisy displayed by some EU member states that on one hand urged for European solutions, only to reject them later as too generous for refugees.

"We risk this cycle that countries ask for European responses, then they prevent these European responses from taking place," she said, warning against using the crisis for electoral purposes.

- 'Panic' in Europe -

Mario Draghi, the powerful head of the European Central Bank, said the refugees could be an "opportunity" to stimulate economic growth, but it was too early to tell.

"Our society will change, in which direction one can only guess," he said to a packed room in the Swiss ski resort.

George Soros, the 85-year-old financier and one-time refugee, told a dinner of big players that the numbers of migrants were now dangerously high.

"We have passed a tipping point where the influx reduces the capacity of the countries to assimilate or integrate the refugees," he said.

"There is panic (in Europe)," he said darkly.

But Helene Rey, one of Europe's up-and-coming economists, said it was not too late.

"It is an opportunity. You have to invest in the integration of refugees and you get a return on that investment down the road," said the French academic.

This view was echoed by the International Monetary Fund that said in a report released in time for Davos: "In the long run, the economic impact will depend on the speed of integration of refugees into the labour market."

US Secretary John Kerry called in Davos for a 30-percent increase in humanitarian funding from the United Nations for refugees.

This would bring the level of aid from $10 billion in 2015 to $13 billion this year, a State Department official said.

Kerry said President Barack Obama would host a summit on refugees at the UN General Assembly in New York later this year in a sign that the issue is sounding alarms worldwide.

Kenya, which has hosted refugees from Somalia and Sudan for decades, said Europe was merely getting a taste of Africa's problems.

"It is new for Europe, it is not new for the rest of the world," said Kenya's Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed.

"Maybe that mindset will change (in Europe), maybe it will shift so that you start looking at other people in the same way that you look at yourselves," she said.