ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's defense minister said Tuesday that military teams have set up most of the long-delayed migrant reception facilities the country has promised its European Union partners to build. But he said the installations may not have to be fully used.
Panos Kammenos said that last week's agreement to involve NATO in policing the porous sea border of alliance members Greece and Turkey will drastically reduce the mass flow of migrants and refugees into Europe.
"This agreement with NATO is of paramount importance," Kammenos told a news conference. "It ends the immigration (problem)."
Financially struggling Greece is the main gateway for people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa seeking a better life in Europe. More than 850,000 reached the eastern Greek islands last year from nearby Turkey, paying smugglers for a berth on frail, overcrowded boats, and about 77,000 have arrived this year.
Most head north through the Balkans to seek asylum in wealthier EU countries, although following a series of restrictions, now only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are allowed to continue, with all others rejected as economic migrants. Still, Greece has been heavily criticized — unfairly, it says — by other Europeans for failing to control the flow or adequately screen migrants, and there have been calls for the country to be booted out of the 26-country border control-free Schengen Area.
EU Council President Donald Tusk, in Athens on Tuesday, ruled that idea out.
"Let me be clear. Excluding Greece from Schengen solves none of our problems," he said, after talks with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. "What we must do is improve the protection of our external borders, not least here in Greece. This requires more Greek effort, but it also requires more support from EU partners."
Last week, the EU told Athens to get on with its long-delayed commitment to build five processing centers on the islands, which will be supplemented by two mainland transit camps.
Kammenos said four of the island centers — where migrants will be led and screened to eliminate identity fraud — are now functional, while the fifth was delayed by protesting islanders and will be ready in five days. He said one of the relocation camps, where asylum seekers will await transportation to EU host countries, is ready and the second will be functioning next week.
But Kammenos insisted that the NATO naval mission would stop and turn back migrant boats, even if they have reached Greek waters.
"These people will be rescued, and then ... led back to organized camps in Turkey," he said. "I believe that we will not even need the 8,000 positions in the relocation centers. The problem will be tackled on the Turkish coast."