BRUSSELS — The European Union's top official warned Tuesday the bloc has just two months to get its migration strategy in order 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," European Council President Donald Tusk told EU lawmakers, warning that a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on March 17-18 "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 1 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 don't qualify for asylum.
A package of sweeteners earmarked for Turkey - including 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion), 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 neighbors, particularly along the Balkan route used by migrants arriving in Greece to reach their preferred destinations like Germany or Sweden further north.
Tusk warned that if Europe fails to make the strategy work "we will face grave consequences such as the collapse of Schengen," the 26-nation 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 Tuesday 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.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said that Belgrade "will protect its interests."
"We cannot allow the borders to close and limit the flow of migrants and they stay in Serbia," he said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said closing borders won't prevent people from trying to enter Europe.
Steinmeier said the root causes driving people to flee their homes, such as conflicts in the Middle East, need to be tackled and that Turkey's cooperation is also key. North African states must also take back failed asylum seekers like western Balkan nations already do, he added.
Elsewhere, Dutch police said they arrested three protesters Monday night at a demonstration against a town's plan to build a center for potential asylum-seekers. Riot police cleared a central square in the town of Heesch after demonstrators began throwing eggs and fireworks at officers. Police say there were no injuries.
Last week, someone hung a pig's carcass from a tree near the proposed location.
Mike Corder in the Hague, Netherlands, Karel Janicek in Prague, Frank Jordans in Berlin, and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.