The EU has just two months to get its migration strategy in order, European Council president Donald Tusk has warned.
The warning came amid criticism that its current policies are putting thousands of people in danger and creating more business for smugglers.
“We have no more than two months to get things under control,” Mr Tusk told EU politicians, warning that a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on March 17 and 18 “will be the last moment to see if our strategy works”.
The EU spent most of 2015 devising policies to cope with the arrival of more than one million people fleeing conflict or poverty but few are having a real impact. A refugee-sharing plan launched in September has barely got off the ground and countries are still not sending back people who do not qualify for asylum.
A package of sweeteners earmarked for Turkey – including billions of euros, easier visa access for Turkish citizens and fast-tracking of the country’s EU membership process – has borne little fruit.
The failure has raised tensions between neighbours, particularly along the Balkan route used by migrants arriving in Greece to reach their preferred destinations such as Germany or Sweden further north.
Mr Tusk warned that if Europe fails to make the strategy work “we will face grave consequences such as the collapse of Schengen”, the passport-free travel zone.
His remarks came after Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, said that border closures and tougher policing only force people seeking sanctuary or jobs to find more dangerous routes to Europe.
“Policies of deterrence, along with their chaotic response to the humanitarian needs of those who flee, actively worsened the conditions of thousands of vulnerable men, women and children,” said MSF head of operations Brice de le Vingne.
The group urged the EU to create more legal ways to come to Europe, allow asylum applications at the land border between Turkey and Greece, and set up a real search and rescue system, after more than 3,000 people died trying to reach the EU by sea in 2015.
As pressure built among EU partner nations, four Central European members confirmed their fierce opposition to a plan to redistribute 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece, and called for the strict control and registration of all refugees on the external borders of the Schengen zone.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, who form an informal grouping known as the Visegrad Four, or V4, rejected any compulsory refugee quotas.
Officials from Slovenia and Serbia also warned of retaliatory measures if Austria tries to slow the entry of migrants. That, they say, would cause a domino effect and ratchet up tensions along the so-called Balkan migrant corridor back to Greece, where most migrants are arriving from Turkey.
“If Austria and Germany introduce certain measures that would mean tighter control of the flow of migrants, Slovenia will do the same,” foreign minister Karl Erjavec said.