The Latest: NATO: rescued migrants can be returned to Turkey

AP News
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Posted: Feb 23, 2016 1:30 PM
The Latest: NATO: rescued migrants can be returned to Turkey

CALAIS, France (AP) — The Latest on the migrant influx into Europe (all times local):

7:25 p.m.

NATO's chief says the alliance could return any migrants it rescues in the Aegean Sea to Turkey if they set out from that country.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey and its allies have agreed that "if the people were rescued by NATO, if they come from Turkey, we can return them to Turkey."

He told EU lawmakers Tuesday that NATO ships have already been doing monitoring work in the Aegean while mission details are sorted out.

NATO wants to help Greece, Turkey, and the EU border agency Frontex with surveillance in the sea, which thousands of migrants have been crossing daily. NATO vessels are obliged to help boats in distress, but rescue work is not their aim. Still, Stoltenberg insisted that NATO would not turn migrant boats back.

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5:25 p.m.

Belgium is reinforcing its borders with France close to Calais to avoid a flood of people crossing the border if the migrant camp there gets closed.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon said Belgium has told the European Union authorities of the Schengen borderless zone it will temporarily reimpose border controls.

Jambon said that up to 290 police officials a day will be used to make sure that no camps are set up on the Belgian side of the border and that migrants cannot slip aboard Britain-bound ships in the port of Zeebrugge.

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5:20 p.m.

Austria's chancellor is citing parts of a letter from the EU's top refugee official critical of his country's cap on migrant entries to argue that Austria's move is warranted.

Werner Faymann says the letter from Dimitris Avramopoulos notes that "no one must be waved through" EU borders. He also says the letter stipulates that "someone who already had the chance to request asylum somewhere else in the European Union can be turned away."

As of last Friday Austria is allowing no more than 80 people a day to apply for asylum at its southern border points. It is also restricting the total number of those in transit to other EU nations further north to 3,200 a day.

Faymann, in comments to reporters Tuesday, said he is standing by the restrictions.

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4:20 p.m.

The U.N. refugee agency says several European countries are placing extra "undue hardship" on asylum-seekers and Greece with restrictions that have caused "chaos" at some border points.

UNHCR expressed concerns Tuesday that such "restrictive practices" are putting extra pressure on Greece. Its Aegean Sea islands have taken in over 825,000 people since August alone — mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis fleeing conflict at home.

The agency said a statement from police in Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia about registering refugees at the Macedonia-Greece border has been "interpreted differently" and resulted in greater risks for such travelers — notably unaccompanied children.

UNHCR also said recent limits announced by Austria and Slovenia on daily entries and accepted asylum applications "risk violating EU law."

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3:35 p.m.

Regional officials in Greece say they have reached an agreement with the eastern Spanish region of Valencia for the transfer of 1,000 migrants — bypassing the European Union's slow moving relocation system.

Greek islands have been hard hit by Europe's refugee crisis, with more than 800,000 asylum-seekers arriving last year and roughly 4,000 per day so far in 2016.

The South Aegean regional government, which represents several Greek islands, said it had made the agreement with Valencia authorities currently visiting Greece. The migrants were due to travel by chartered ferry from the island of Leros to Spain, an announcement said.

The governments say the move "sends a message that the refugee problem in Europe can been managed with humanity and enlightenment."

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3:30 p.m.

Germany's interior minister is pressing for Turkey to take back migrants trying to cross the Aegean Sea as European Union leaders prepare for a summit with Turkey expected on March 7.

Germany and other EU countries see diplomacy with Turkey, currently the main transit country for migrants trying to get to Europe, as key to stemming the flow of refugees. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere says after meeting Sweden's justice minister Tuesday that securing the Greek-Turkish sea border is important "and that includes people being returned to Turkey, and not being received in Greece first."

De Maiziere says that approach will be pursued in the coming weeks. He says if it's not helping reduce the influx, other "pre-eminently European" measures would have to be considered.

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3:20 p.m.

The European Union is worried about new police restrictions being imposed on people traveling along the main migrant route through the Balkans.

Police chiefs from EU states Austria, Croatia and Slovenia plus non-members Serbia and Macedonia agreed last week to only allow in people "arriving from war-torn areas." The EU's executive arm said Tuesday that it "has concerns about this approach and will raise the matter with the relevant countries."

People from Afghanistan are now being stopped from moving through the Balkans. That is ratcheting up the pressure on Greece, where most of the migrants arrive in Europe, since many Afghanis are getting stuck at its border with Macedonia.

Many from Afghanistan could potentially qualify for asylum.

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3:10 p.m.

The Czech prime minister says the European Union should stop migrants along the Balkans' route if the measures taken by Turkey and Greece are not enough.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka says "if the flow of migrants is not stopped in Greece, we have to stop it in the western Balkans area." Sobotka says the EU should do that after next month's summit of EU leaders. He says thousands of migrants cannot be allowed to enter the EU daily any more.

Sobotka said Tuesday that four Central European countries —the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — support creating a new barrier on Greece's borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria. The plan is controversial — and opposed by Germany — because it effectively eliminates Greece from Europe's passport-free Schengen travel zone.

But Sobotka says Greece would not remain alone and receive an unspecified help from the EU.

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1:40 p.m.

The head of Europe's border control agency says more border officers, ships and planes are needed to guard Greece's sprawling maritime border, where most migrants enter the 28-nation European Union.

Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri says Tuesday the agency's 2016 budget has been increased to 250 million euros ($275 million) from 142 million euros last year. In 2017, the agency's budget will increase to 320 million euros.

Some 775 EU border officers are currently deployed in Greece and about 280 in southern Italy where migrants arrive across the Mediterranean from Libya.

Leggeri says January migrant arrivals are down significantly over December, but are many times higher than the number who arrived in January 2015. Last year saw more than one million migrants land on Europe's shores.

12:35 p.m.

The head of Europe's border control agency says it's proving near-impossible to return to Turkey migrants who arrive in Greece but have no case for asylum in the European Union.

Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri said in Berlin Tuesday that newcomers who don't meet requirements for protection and are considered economic migrants are supposed to leave Greece within a month. Since the vast majority arrive on boats from Turkey, that means they should return to Turkey.

But Leggeri said "practically almost no migrants can be returned to Turkey." He suggested that if no country is taking the unwanted economic migrants it's likely they'll all remain in Greece.

EU leaders are looking for ways to persuade Ankara to deliver on a pledge to crack down on migrants trying to cross into Greece.

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12:30 p.m.

A key migration watcher says more than 110,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy this year — about four months faster than that milestone was reached in a record-setting 2015.

The International Organization for Migration says more than 102,500 people crossed into Greece and more than 7,500 to Italy through Monday. IOM figures show that last year, that number of crossings wasn't reached before June. By year-end, more than 1 million people had crossed.

Nearly half of those arriving in Greece this year were Syrians, and one-quarter were Afghans.

Separately Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said a study found 94 percent of Syrians and 71 percent of Afghans who arrived in Greece in January cited conflict and violence at home as their main reasons for traveling there.

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9:40 a.m.

People fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa, the Mideast and Asia are facing an evening deadline to move out of a camp in the French port of Calais that has become a flashpoint in Europe's migrant crisis.

Authorities, arguing that the slum-like site presents sanitary risks, warned camp residents last week that they have until 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) Tuesday to leave.

A decision is expected Tuesday in a last-ditch effort by charity groups to delay the evacuation.

Officials estimate 800 to 1,000 currently live there, but humanitarian groups contend the figure is more than 3,000.

Regional administration head Fabienne Buccio said on Europe-1 radio Tuesday that the expulsion order doesn't mean authorities will use force to evacuate the site. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve insisted the evacuation would be "progressive."

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9:15 a.m.

Police have removed hundreds of migrants from a camp at Greece's border with Macedonia following a protest that halted freight rail services to other Balkan countries.

Authorities said the mostly Afghan migrants were being put on buses bound for Athens, in the south of the country, after the police operation started early Tuesday. Journalists were not allowed to approach the area.

Macedonia at the weekend began stopping Afghan migrants at the border, and slowing the rate at which asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq were allowed to cross the border — leaving thousands stranded in Greece, where an average of 4,000 migrants and refugees each day.

Greek has strongly criticized Austria's decision last week to cap the daily number of asylum applications and migrants crossing the country.