Greece Denies Warned Ouster from EU Open Borders Over Refugees

Volunteers help around 150 refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria and Iraq, to disembark from a vessel after their arrival from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. Authorities in northwestern Turkey on Monday rounded up some 1,300 asylum seekers and migrants allegedly preparing to make their way into Greece. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

Greece’s migration minister says his country has come under “intense pressure” from some European countries over the migration crisis, but he says that’s unfair.

Reacting to a story in the Financial Times, Ioannis Mouzalas told reporters that no official threat has been made to eject Greece from Europe’s borderless Schengen area although the Greek newspaper Kathim. He says accusations by unidentified European officials in the FT story were a mixture of “reality and myth.”

Greece has been the main point of entry into the EU for about 700,000 migrants and refugees so far this year but is receiving relatively little help while the bloc is offering Turkey 3.4 billion euros ($3.6 billion) to help deal with the crisis.

Greece also still hasn’t set up an office to coordinate the handling of 460 million euros ($487.59 million) in EU money to help deal with the migrant invasion.

Most of the refugees coming to Greece head for its islands from the nearby Turkish coast on rickety craft and overcrowded rubber dinghies, many of which have capsized or sunk, drowning hundreds, including children, on the way.

Mouzalas says: “It’s true that our country has come under intense pressure from some European Union member countries who mistakenly believe that the refugee flow can be controlled from Greece. As we’ve repeatedly stated and as Europe has belatedly understood, Greece is the start of the corridor. The door is in Turkey. Therefore if the flows are not controlled in Turkey, from the coast of Turkey, it is impossible to control the flows from Greece or any other European Union member.”

A stranded woman from Somalia pleads i Idomeni. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
A stranded woman from Somalia pleads in Idomeni. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

As Greece comes under intense pressure to tighten its borders, authorities are still grappling with a relentless influx of migrants.

Pressure on Greece appeared to grow on Dec. 1 as senior EU officials warned that the country faces suspension from the Schengen passport-free travel zone unless it overhauls its response to the crisis by mid-December, Kathimerini said.

“The Germans are furious and that’s why people are talking about pushing Greece out,” an anonymous EU ambassador was quoted by the FT as saying noting growing frustration about Greece being unable to handle the problem that took Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government months to realize was criticial.

FYROM BORDER TROUBLE

As thousands of migrants gathered near Greece’s border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, seeking passage, Mouzalas said that those unable to cross would be able to return to Athens which has almost no money to help during a crushing economic crisis that is seeing the government about to even slash pensions and health care again.

He also expressed concern about a protest on the border that has closed the railway line connecting the two countries.

A total of 1,800 cargo carriages are being affected by a migrant protest on Greece’s northern border with FYROM that has already cost railway operator Trainose more than 1.5 million euros, the company said.

About 1,500 migrants – mainly from Iran, Pakistan and Morocco – have since Nov. 18 camped on the railway lines connecting the two countries demanding passage to western Europe, stranded by a policy of filtering migrants in the Balkans. Priority is being given to those from war-torn countries such as Syria, while economic migrants are being denied entry.

About 1,000 non-Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who were turned back by FYROM police returned to Athens on Dec. 1. Bus transfers were organized by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee program.

Migration Ministry General Secretary Vasilis Papadopoulos said there are no plans to build a reception facility for migrants and refugees in Idomeni, near the border.

Returning migrants will be housed in a former Olympic  stadium near the old Athens airport, setting off criticism from neighbors.

Speaking to Kathimerini, Elliniko Mayor Ioannis Konstantantos said that authorities had pledged that the venue would be evacuated by end October.

UNHCR is seeking about 7,000 apartments and hotel rooms to accommodate some 20,000 asylum seekers eligible for the EU’s relocation program by the end of the year. Greece is to see 66,400 people relocated under the Commission’s plan.

Officials are concerned about a large number of migrants remaining stranded in Greece.

A group of 56 undocumented immigrants from Pakistan are expected to be deported on Dec. 2, the first such operation in over 18 months.

Despite an earlier deal with the Greek government, Pakistan said it would only take in nationals with a proper Pakistani ID and refuse entry to those with passports issued by the country’s embassy in Athens.

BUSINESS COMPLAINTS

Major international companies such as Cosco, Hewlett Packard and Sony are anxious they can’t ship goods with the Christmas season approaching. The holdup has also affected Greek exporters.

The Association of International Freight Forwarders and Logistic Enterprises of Greece urged Infrastructure Minister Christos Spirtzis to find a solution.

“This is hurting companies which are struggling to survive and, most importantly, to fulfill their obligations to other firms, domestic as well as multinationals,” the association said in a letter.

“You ought to help the Greek businesses which today support the economy because tomorrow it may be too late,” it said.

Companies can reroute their cargo through Bulgaria at great cost and a loss of time which is critical for them.

SECRET DEAL?

Hungary’s Prime Minister said he believes a secret pact led by Germany to bring up to 500,000 Syrians from Turkey directly into the European Union will be revealed soon.

Viktor Orban said that a similar idea was rejected recently by European national leaders but that “the cat will be out of the bag” and the scheme will be announced in Berlin as soon as this week.

Orban says “this secret agreement exists and we will be confronted by it in the coming days.”

He says the plan includes forcing all EU countries to take in some migrants, even if they are opposed to mandatory quotas.

Orban said there will be “huge pressure” on countries like Hungary and other reluctant countries to take part.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)