PARIS - Europe can expect a record one million people to request asylum this year as refugees flee war Syria and Iraq in droves, and EU leaders must set their differences aside to meet the challenge, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said.
Almost half of that million will likely qualify for asylum, it said.
The plea from the Paris-based OECD, an agency which offers policy advice to the primarily wealthy countries that fund it, came as EU interior ministers sought yet again to agree on a shareout plan covering 120,000 refugees, at talks in Brussels. "Europe's leaders must take a historic stand in the face of this humanitarian tragedy," OECD chief Angel Gurria said.
The organisation published a report saying Europe had the capacity and the obligation to accommodate an unprecedented wave of refugees that was even bigger than the one sparked by the 1990s breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Failure to agree a joint emergency plan and couple it with a revamped long-term policy on integration of migrants could fuel the xenophobia that may partly explain EU government inaction to date, the OECD report said.
Europe is better equipped to deal with the influx now than when refugees fled the wars of old Yugoslavia, but less affluent countries like Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria need financial aid from EU partners to cope, the report said.
There must be a faster processing of asylum requests as well as an agreed shareout of refugees across EU countries, it said.
Germany has said it will likely take 800,000 asylum seekers but European Commission plans for a distribution of 120,000 across the 28 EU countries over the next two years have exposed deep divisions between EU member countries, with stiff resistance from several eastern EU countries such as Hungary not used to notable multicultural immigration unlike in the west.
The OECD said latest data showed more than 330,000 migrants arrived by sea in Europe in the first eight months of 2015, including 210,000 in Greece and 120,000 in Italy. Half a million illegal border crossings have been detected in the same period, almost double the level over the whole of 2014.
While the immediate priority is handling refugees from war zones, rich countries must adapt migration policy to a broader trend where one in 10 migrants to OECD countries is from China and almost one in 20 from India, the OECD said.
That includes migrants such as expatriated workers, students and au pairs on temporary stays and other economic migrants who are often given work and residence permits under policies that governments use to attract foreigners with specific skills.
Immigrants used to raise the total population of Europe by 100,000 or so per year until the mid-1980s but that has risen to around a million a year now, the OECD said, noting that this was in part due to declining birth rates in many European countries. "Migration has been the biggest engine of demographic growth in the EU as a whole since the mid-1990s," its report said. "It is about to become the only one."