The Latest: Greece threatens to block EU summit decisions

AP News
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Posted: Feb 24, 2016 2:43 PM
The Latest: Greece threatens to block EU summit decisions

VIENNA (AP) — The Latest on the influx of migrants into Europe all times local):

8:40 p.m.

Greece has threatened to block decisions at a forthcoming EU migration summit if sharing of the refugee burden is not made obligatory for member states.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said Wednesday that from now on Greece "will not assent to agreements" unless all its partners are forced to participate proportionately in the relocation and resettlement of refugees.

A senior government official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, clarified that Tsipras was specifically referring to the March 7 summit on immigration.

—By Nicholas Paphitis in Athens

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8:30 p.m.

Greece's prime minister has proposed that European Union members should be forced to share the burden of handling the continent's migrant crisis.

Alexis Tsipras said existing EU agreements on taking in refugees must be implemented without further delay, and strongly criticized Austria for restricting immigration flows.

Tsipras proposed to Greece's Parliament Wednesday to demand, at the forthcoming March 7 EU summit, that all EU countries be obliged to share, proportionately, in the burden of relocating and resettling refugees.

He will now convene a meeting of political party leaders to seek their backing for such a move.

Tsipras also lashed out at EU member states that "not only erect fences on their borders but at the same time do not accept to take in a single refugee."

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6:20 p.m.

An official says Serbia is considering the possibility of involving the army in managing the migrant crisis as the country struggles to cope with the influx of people who are unable to continue their journey toward the European Union.

Justice Minister Nikola Selakovic says government and security officials discussed such a scenario at a meeting Wednesday, adding the country's security system has been put on alert.

Selakovic says Serbia is facing pressure from so-called economic migrants, mostly from Africa or Asia, who won't be granted refugee status in the EU.

Hundreds of people already have been stranded in Greece and elsewhere in the Balkans because they are not allowed to move further west. There have been fears of instability in the volatile region in case the backlog builds up.

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6:00 p.m.

The Czech interior minister says his country is creating a police unit with officers who have international experience that could be used to help manage the influx of migrants elsewhere in Europe.

Milan Chovanec says the unit should have about 300 officers.

Chovanec says the Czechs will likely send more policemen to Macedonia to help protect the Macedonian-Greek border. The Czechs already deployed 27 officers there.

The Czech police have also been helping with the migrant crisis in Slovenia and Hungary.

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5:45 p.m.

The top United Nations official for refugees has deplored the closing of borders in Europe to refugees, and is pressing for European Union members to implement pledges to share the burden of receiving people in need of protection.

Filippo Grandi said Wednesday that Greece faces the biggest burden from refugee arrivals in Europe and its position should not be made worse through border closures.

Grandi insisted that many Afghans — who are now blocked from transiting the Balkans toward wealthier EU members — require protection and should be treated as all other refugees.

"So that's the strong call," he said, at the end of a visit to Greece. "For refugees, don't apply these restrictions, share the responsibility, share the numbers."

Earlier, Grandi met Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

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4:50 p.m.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and expressed his "intense displeasure" over some nations failing to adhere to what had been agreed regarding the refugee crisis.

Athens is furious at being excluded from a meeting called by Austria in Vienna Wednesday with the western Balkan countries which are on the migration route. Due to its long sea border with Turkey and its islands' close proximity to the Turkish coast, Greece is the main gateway into Europe for hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants heading to more prosperous European countries.

Tsipras' office said the prime minister and German chancellor agreed that Greece must be supported and that the NATO mission to patrol the eastern Aegean should begin immediately "with the aim of disbanding the human smuggling rings and reducing the migration flows."

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4 p.m.

About 1,000 people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis, as well as a small number of Afghans, have arrived at the Diavata transit center in northern Greece, where they are to remain until the crowds at the Idomeni border crossing thin somewhat.

Sakis Papathemelis, head of the interior ministry's first reception services, said the refugees began arriving from Greece's main port of Piraeus near Athens at about 6 a.m., after reaching the mainland by ferry from the islands. He said the Diavata center, an old army camp about 10 kilometers (6 miles) west of Thessaloniki, had a capacity of up to 2,000 people, but that there was a prospect to increase that to 4,000.

Thousands of people have been waiting at the Idomeni area of the border with Macedonia to cross northwards. Macedonian authorities have been allowing only Syrians and Iraqis to cross, and those at a very slow pace. But the influx of people reaching eastern Aegean Greek islands from the Turkish mainland continues unabated, and the border restrictions mean tens of thousands could end up trapped in Greece.

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3:30 p.m.

Austria and nations on the route taken by migrants reaching its doorstep say the flow must be capped due to security concerns, challenges to their integration and lack of resources.

A declaration agreed on Wednesday by EU members Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria, as well as Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, also says the right to asylum does not include choosing "a country of preference."

The document calls for common standards for registration and entry criteria for those with realistic chances of gaining asylum.

It urges all EU nations that have signed on the Schengen agreement to refuse entry to those "who do not satisfy the entry conditions" and to those who do, but do not use the opportunity to apply for asylum.

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3:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Robert Fico says the Slovak police forces have means to stop the flow of migrants on the borders with Austria and Hungary.

Speaking after a drill called "Barrier" Wednesday, Fico says it is likely only a question of time when Slovakia might become a transit country for the refugees after recent limits announced by Austria and Slovenia.

Fico and his Interior Minister Robert Kalinak say Slovakia has available a movable barrier and is ready for such a scenario.

Fico says: "We would be able to stop those people."

He says those who won't apply for asylum will be detained and returned to Austria or Hungary.

The refugees have rarely used Slovakia on their way to Germany and other rich countries.

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3:20 p.m.

More than a thousand of migrants and refugees mostly from Syria have been stranded for days in Serbia waiting to cross into Croatia.

They said Wednesday Croatia has been allowing in only small groups of people while turning many others, including children, back without official explanation. Some say they have been waiting up to four days in cold weather in the Serbian border town of Sid.

Abdullah Diab from Homs in Syria says "I don't know what is happening, what's the problem."

Austria has triggered a backlog of migrants along their Balkan route by setting a cap on the rate at which it would accept them. More than 1 million people fleeing wars and poverty reached Western Europe in 2015.

Nations along the Balkan route this week started joint controls of the flow through their territories, admitting only Syrians and Iraqis while turning back Afghans. This border screening procedure has triggered bottlenecks on various frontiers along the route.

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2:30 p.m.

The German government is stressing that it still views finding a pan-European solution to the migrant crisis as the priority as neighboring Austria and several Balkan countries discussed the influx in Vienna.

Germany, where most migrants are headed, wasn't included in the Vienna meeting. Neither was Greece, where most first enter the European Union.

Germany wants primarily to work with Turkey to protect the EU's external borders and stem the flow of people across the Aegean Sea to Greece. Government spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz declined to comment Wednesday on the Vienna meeting but stressed "a pan-European solution on this question ... is the top priority for the German government."

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sawsan Chebli said, "we won't get so far if everyone tries to bring about solutions on their own."

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1:50 p.m.

Several hundred Afghan migrants who have found themselves trapped in Greece are camped out in an Athens city square, lying on blankets or pieces of cardboard.

Aman Golestani, a 22-year-old psychology student took five weeks to get to Greece from Afghanistan's eastern Ghazni province.

"I got here yesterday, but we haven't tried to go to the border," he said, speaking slow but clear English, and sitting on the ground with friends who traveled with him.

Golestani said he was afraid to return home.

"The Taliban are killing people like us, young people who are trying to get an education."

He added: "I don't know what I'll do now. ... We just hope the border will open."

Around Golestani, families ate sandwiches, a man read the Quran, and children ran around the square and blew soap bubbles. Volunteers from Greece and the Netherlands handed out sanitation kits and emergency supplies, while vendors from cell phone companies sold SIM cards.

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1:25 p.m.

Hungary's prime minister has called for a national referendum on the European Union's plan for a mandatary quota for the resettlement of migrants and refugees.

Viktor Orban said Wednesday that those voting in favor of the proposal would be voting "in favor of Hungary's independence and rejecting the mandatory quota plan."

Orban said that the referendum question would be: "Do you want the European Union to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary even without the consent of Parliament?"

He said the question has already been submitted for approval to the National Election Office.

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1:05 p.m.

The clock is still ticking for hundreds of migrants in the northern French port city of Calais, waiting for a judge to decide whether to honor or postpone an eviction order.

The Lille administrative court says the decision could come on Thursday — two days after the deadline expired for the state-ordered mass evictions. A group of humanitarian associations had asked that the state expulsion order for a large swath of the camp be postponed.

Authorities say the order concerns 800 to 1,000 migrants, but humanitarian groups put the count at more than 3,000.

Most all migrants in the camp want to sneak to Britain by ferry or the Eurotunnel rail service.

Belgium, fearful of a flood of evicted migrants, announced a restoration of border controls on Tuesday.

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11:10 a.m.

Greece's migration minister says he expects the number of stranded immigrants in Greece to reach "tens of thousands" after Balkan countries introduced stricter transit rules.

"There are about 12,000 (stranded) people right now. Tomorrow it could be 14,000 and then 16,000 the following day," Ioannis Mouzalas told private Antenna television. "Eventually there will be tens of thousands, but that is a number that is manageable."

Mouzalas said the government was looking at additional sites to set up temporary transit camps by the end of the week.

"It's not something we can do in one or two days, but we are trying to keep people in humane conditions," he said.

Greece, he said, was applying diplomatic pressure on European Union and NATO allies to limit unilateral actions by EU member states to restrict entry to asylum seekers and to make recently deployed patrols by the military alliance in the Aegean Sea more effective.

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11:05 a.m.

Greece has opened a second army-built transit camp in the north of the country to cope with a border bottleneck of migrants and refugees.

About 1,000 asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq were taken by bus from the border to the camp outside the northern city of Thessaloniki, police said. Afghan migrants, who have been blocked by authorities in neighboring Macedonia, are being taken to Athens, in the south of the country.

Migrants continued to camp outside and sleep rough at the Macedonian border overnight as organized facilities there remained filled to capacity.

"At times there are double the number of people than places available at the camp, so the conditions can become very difficult," Xanthippe Soupli, municipal director at the border town of Idomeni, told state-run ERT television.

— By Costas Kantouris in Idoimeni, Greece

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10:40 a.m.

Migrants stranded in Greece have begun reappearing in squares in central Athens after Balkan countries imposed tougher transit restrictions at the weekend in response to similar action taken by Austria.

The interior ministry said about 12,000 people have been stranded in Greece since neighbor Macedonia began turning Afghan immigrants away at the border and slowing the number of crossings for others heading to central and northern Europe. The government is planning to set up several temporary shelters to try and deal with the crisis.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, is in Athens to meet government officials Wednesday, including Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

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10:35 a.m.

The German government says 125 Afghans who had their asylum applications rejected have voluntarily returned to their homeland.

The Interior Ministry said a plane carrying the migrants landed in Kabul Wednesday. The return was organized by the International Organization for Migration.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said in a statement the migrants' return was important for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The government hopes the return will dissuade more Afghans from traveling to Germany but hasn't said when it might start deporting people to Afghanistan.

Afghans were the second-biggest group among the more than one million asylum seekers who came to Germany in 2015, with more than 150,000 arriving. Some 309 Afghans returned last year to their homeland after their asylum pleas had been rejected.

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10:30 a.m.

The head of the European Parliament says it's "absolutely normal" for Belgium to reinforce its border with France to avoid a flood of people crossing over if a migrant camp near Calais gets evacuated.

Martin Schulz says in an interview with French radio Europe 1 that the move, announced Tuesday by Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon, was carried out according to the rules of the Schengen borderless zone, which he said permits states to temporarily restore border controls.

Jambon said up to 290 police a day will be used to make sure no camps are set up on the Belgian side of the border.

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10:15 a.m.

Amnesty International says the European Union is too focused on keeping migrants out and failing to take humanitarian measures that could have prevented thousands dying at sea.

More than 110,000 people fleeing conflict or poverty have entered the EU so far this year, and over 400 have died.

Amnesty said in its 2015-2016 annual report released Wednesday that "the EU's failing refugee strategy remains focused on keeping people out, rather than providing the safe passage to Europe that could save thousands of lives."

The human rights group said EU countries "for the most part vacillated or actively obstructed potential solutions" to sharing refugees. It says little effort was made to find more legal ways for migrants to avoid dangerous sea journeys and enter Europe safely.

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10 a.m.

Austria's foreign minister is defending his country's decision not to invite Greece to a conference of West Balkan nations focused on managing the migrant crisis.

Sebastian Kurz says that Greece has "clearly expressed no interest in reducing the (migrant) influx and in contrast wants to continue waving them through" to Macedonia, from where they make their way northward. Austria has imposed limits on the number of refugees allowed to enter.

The statement by Kurz comes ahead of a meeting Wednesday of Austrian and West Balkan government ministers in Vienna aiming at finding common solutions to crimping the refugee flow.

Greece is not invited. Austria's Interior Ministry says the conference is set up in a "regular format" that does not include Athens.