The president of the European Union Commission has presented his plan to tackle the refugee crisis that is dividing governments in Europe, calling on member nations to agree on a plan to take in 160,000 refugees fleeing from war and terror.
“It is the time for bold, determined action by the European Union,” Jean-Claude Juncker declared on Wednesday. “This has to be done in a compulsory way.”
“It is a matter of humanity and human dignity,” he said, adding that many Europeans themselves have been refugees at one time or another.
“It is high time to act, to manage the refugee crisis, because there is no alternative. No rhetoric. Action is what is needed for the time.”
In his proposal, Juncker wants 22 of the member states to accept another 120,000 people, on top of the 40,000 already agreed upon, bringing the total number to 160,000.
Juncker, however, did not release a specific number of refugees each EU member state must agree to take.
He also warned member states not to make religious distinctions when deciding to admit refugees.
“There is no religion, there is no belief, there is no philosophy when it comes to refugees. We don’t distinguish.”
Ahead of his speech, Juncker released a statement on Wednesday offering better protection for refugees but also proposing to improve its frontier defences and deport more “illegal migrants”.
He also called for “a swift, determined and comprehensive response to the refugee crisis”.
Germany which hosts the largest number of refugees has already backed the idea, so has Sweden, which takes the most number of refugees in relation to its population.
Italy, which is one of the main arrival points for thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean is also in favour and so are France and Spain.
Under the proposal, countries refusing to take in refugees could face financial penalties.
But the plan has met stiff opposition from countries like Hungary which is building a fence to keep refugees away from its borders.
Its neighbours, the Czech Republic, Poland and the Slovak Republic have also said that mandatory and permanent quotas would be unacceptable.
We can't just say Syria is too far away, we don't care about it, when the entire world is looking at us.
Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from Strasbourg, said one of the big debates dividing EU is the type of refugees member states can accept, as some eastern European states have proposed accepting only Christian refugees.
An estimated 400,000 refugees are expected to cross the Mediterranean this year.
On Tuesday, Antonio Guterres, the head of the UN refugee agency, called for an increase in the number of legal ways for refugees to come to Europe, citing an increase in number of visas, relocation and reunification of people with their families.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged greater flexibility in EU migrant quotas as her deputy, Sigmar Gabriel, said Berlin “could surely deal with something in the order of half-a-million [refugees] for several years”.
Speaking alongside Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven in Berlin on Tuesday, she said that all countries in Europe have to take responsibility for the values Europe was founded on in dealing with the current refugee crisis.
“We can’t just say Syria is too far away we don’t care about it, when the entire world is looking at us,” she said.
Germany, which has previously said it would take in 800,000 asylum seekers this year, would continue accepting “a greatly disproportionate share” among EU members “because we are an economically strong country”, Gabriel told AFP news agency.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the large majority of people arriving in Europe are refugees fleeing war and violence, who have a right to seek asylum without any form of discrimination.
UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told Al Jazeera that Europe is a “wealthy” continent that could manage the numbers of people coming in.
A record 7,000 Syrian refugees arrived in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Monday, while some 30,000 are on Greek islands, including 20,000 on Lesbos, according to the UN.
Since June, UNICEF said, more than 64,000 migrants have passed through the Macedonian border and 89,161 have been recorded at the Serb border.
Also on Tuesday, EU President Donald Tusk warned that the refugee crisis affecting Europe was part of an “exodus” from war-torn countries that could last years.
Thousands more people are still making their way north through Europe.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel Hamid, reporting from the Greek island of Lesbos, said an estimated 18,000 people are still waiting for their chance to travel onwards.