ATHENS — The European Union has provided far less than is needed to help Greece deal with the massive influx of refugees and other migrants this year, the country’s European Affairs Minister said.
Nikos Xydakis gave the example of staff from the European border agency Frontex, saying that Greece needed 750 but initially received only 350, increasing by a further 100 or so in recent days.
“Since May Greece has persistently been asking for technical, technological and staffing help, and what it has received from Europe is far less than what was asked for,” Xydakis told The Associated Press in an interview.
Greece is the main point of entry into the EU for people fleeing war and poverty at home, with the vast majority of the 700,000 people who have entered the country this year reaching Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. Few want to remain in the financially stricken nation, with nearly all heading on an overland route through the Balkans to the more prosperous European north.
The government says it has also received fewer fingerprinting machines than it needs to identify and register people, and not enough help to patrol the Aegean.
“There is an inability of the member states and the European mechanisms to respond to the needs of this storm,” Xydakis said.
He insisted Greece is meeting its obligations and adhering to all agreements made on the issue, saying small delays were “completely explainable” by the sheer volume of arrivals.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Athens on Dec. 4 for talks on issues including the migrant crisis, and said the U.S. was giving $24 million to the U.N. refugee agency.
Greece’s response to the refugee crisis has come under criticism from some parts of the EU. Suggestions have surfaced in recent media reports that Greece could be suspended from the EU’s borderless Schengen area unless it improves its border policing.
A suspension, which would mean travelers from Greece would pass through passport control on arrival in other Schengen countries, would have little practical effect on the migrant flow as Greece does not share any borders with other Schengen nations. But it would be a humiliating blow.
In Berlin, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert was asked about reports that some EU countries want Greece out of Schengen, but didn’t answer when asked whether Germany was among them.
“The Chancellor and other members of the German government have repeatedly noted how important freedom of movement under Schengen is to us, and that the possibility of preserving this, which we want, depends very directly on how we as Europeans are able to protect and effectively control our exterior borders,” Seibert said.
On Dec. 3, Greece appealed to the EU to activate a civil protection mechanism that will provide material help and an emergency border intervention team, and reached an agreement with Frontex for the agency to assist in registrations at the country’s northern border with Macedonia.
EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said that “We hope to have concrete, tangible progress on the ground” in Greece before an EU summit on Dec. 17, where migration will be on the agenda.
The refugee crisis has been compounded in Greece by a decision by several Balkan nations to stop allowing people from countries not at war to enter their territories.
FYROM, which was the favored route from Greece northwards, has followed suit, building a fence on the border and preventing anyone not from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq from crossing.
At least 3,000 people from other countries remain stuck on the Greek side. Earlier Dec. 4, some of them threw stones at Greek riot police, who have been struggling to maintain order for the past two days.
Xydakis said the challenge that faces the EU is whether it can “adhere to its founding conventions, that you …. don’t beat (people) at the borders as Hungary did two months ago, and that the era of the Iron Curtain has ended in Europe.”
Lorne Cook in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed