Friday 20 April 2018

Greece warns EU that it cannot contain the flow of refugees

EU convenes an emergency summit with Turkey aimed at taking pressure off Athens

And still they come: Refugees continue to pour onto Greek islands Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
And still they come: Refugees continue to pour onto Greek islands Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Peter Foster

Greece has delivered a stark warning on the eve of an emergency summit over the migration crisis, declaring that it cannot stop tens of thousands of people from crossing its northern border and travelling onwards in Europe.

Nikolaos Toskas, the Greek minister for public order, said Europe was deluding itself by believing that refugees could be bottled up in his country.

The European Union will convene an emergency summit with Turkey tomorrow, with signs that a deal is close.

Under this proposed agreement, Turkey would agree to take back all economic migrants - this is generally defined as all non-Syrians - presently in Greece in return for the EU accepting refugees directly from its camps.

The aim is to stem the flow across the Aegean, where about 1,000 people are landing every day on the Greek island of Lesbos alone. More than 125,000 migrants have arrived in Greece so far this year, 12 times more than at this point in 2015.

A new build-up of refugees is taking place on Greece's frontier with Macedonia, where 30,000 people are waiting to cross.

Mr Toskas gave warning that the Greek authorities may find it impossible to hold back the migrants, unless other European countries take their fair share.

"They will find ways to go. Maybe with reduced numbers, but they will go wherever they want. So the only way is to co-operate in a comprehensive way," he said.

"We don't want to allow them," Mr Toskas said. "But the borders are very long and we are trying. We are keeping almost the entire police force and army controlling these borders, but it is very difficult to control sea borders and mountainous terrain."

Mr Toskas was appointed this week to Greece's eight-member crisis cabinet for refugees. His government has warned the mayors of Greek cities to expect 100,000 new arrivals by April.

He said that Greece "cannot be the 'black hole' of Europe" and that the EU's offer of €300m in aid, while welcome, should not be mistaken for a solution to the crisis.

Instead, Greece favours an agreement whereby Turkey would take back all economic migrants, defined as those who are not Syrian.

The rest would be shared equitably between EU members.

Mr Toskas argued that this was the only practical solution, not least because only 2pc or 3pc of the arrivals actually want to claim asylum in Greece.

"Is it possible to keep all these people who want to go elsewhere in detention camps forever?" Mr Toskas asked.

"Are we to keep them there by force? It's impossible, it cannot be done.

"So we are proposing that these people go in a proportionate manner to other EU countries, and to return the economic migrants to their countries of origin or to Turkey. Of course, we can keep a small number, but it cannot be significant."

However, diplomats and independent commentators remain sceptical about whether the deal with Turkey, which is likely to be trumpeted as a breakthrough, will make a real difference.

An EU diplomatic source confirmed that Turkey had indicated a willingness in principle to take back non-Syrian migrants, but said it was "much less clear" which EU members would accept refugees directly from Turkey.

Mr Toskas did not dismiss Turkey's offers of co-operation, but said that Greece would be looking for concrete results from the summit tomorrow.

"We know that whatever is agreed has to be proved," he said.

"The whole of Europe has to deal with the problem, because the problem affects the whole of Europe. It is not a matter of sentiment.

"If it's a disaster for Greece, it's a disaster for all."

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