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EU needs to come to grips with migration issue, commission president says

The European Union’s chief executive, set to unveil contentious new asylum policies for the bloc next week, described immigration on Wednesday as a normal fact of life and said the continent should learn to manage it.

In a major policy speech to the European Parliament that drew applause and the occasional heckle, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said immigration policy must recognize “that each human being has a solemn dignity.”

Since 2015, when more than a million people reached Europe by sea and thousands died trying, migration policy has been a source of quarrel within the bloc.

The numbers of those arriving have fallen sharply since then, but EU members are still divided over how to share the responsibility of hosting them, and far right parties have gained votes across the bloc calling for a harder line.

“Migration has always been a fact for Europe — and it will always be,” von der Leyen said. “This is normality. We should be and we have to be able to manage that.”

At one point in her speech she was interrupted by a right-wing German lawmaker, as she accused “the extreme right” of “preaching hate” on the immigration issue. “But hate has never given any good advice,” von der Leyen said.

Von der Leyen, whose family has helped a Syrian refugee start a new life in Germany, said some two million people come to live in Europe legally each year, while last year just 140,000 people sought asylum.

United Nations data shows 124,000 people made it to the bloc across the Mediterranean last year and 1,319 died at sea, numbers that have fallen each year since 2015.

Wide range of nation responses

Southern EU states where migrants arrive, such as Greece, Italy and Malta, have demanded help. Wealthy northern countries where many head after their arrival, such as Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, want an approach that would see asylum seekers distributed across the bloc. But Eastern states led by Poland and Hungary refuse to host any.

Von der Leyen said the new strategy would aim to improve migration management on the bloc’s external borders, step up the fight against smugglers and reach more deals with third countries to house migrants in return for EU aid. It would create clear, legal ways to reach Europe, and improve integration programs.

WATCH | Greece’s long-crowded migrant camp rocked by fires:

Among the witnesses of the fire that broke out at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was Canadian NGO worker Annie Petros. She helped migrants escape the area and get to hospital. 7:30

Sources told Reuters the proposal would still include the most contentious element: obligatory relocation of asylum seekers among all member states at times of immigration spikes.

That means the proposal will face an uphill battle, and months are expected to go by before member states, the Commission and European Parliament reach a deal.

Germany, which now holds the EU’s rotating presidency, hopes to have at least a “political road map” this year for a future agreement on migration. On Tuesday, Germany said it would take more than 1,500 people stranded on Greek islands after a fire destroyed a migrant camp there last week.

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