The Latest: Chinese artist Ai Weiwei visits border camp

AP News
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Posted: Mar 09, 2016 12:57 PM
The Latest: Chinese artist Ai Weiwei visits border camp

BRUSSELS (AP) — The Latest on the mass migration into Europe (all times local):

6:55 p.m.

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has visited the Idomeni refugee camp in northern Greece, where about 14,000 people, mostly Syrian and Iraqi refugees, have found themselves stranded after Macedonia shut its border.

Ai walked around the tents pitched in the mud during a miserable day of driving rain that turned the camp into a swamp. The artist has been focusing on the plight of refugees in recent months, and has spent time living on the Greek island of Lesbos, where many of the refugees arrive from the nearby Turkish coast.

"Thousands of people are stuck here," Ai said. "Here people stay in the rain, wet, with no clear sight of the future. ... You can't believe this is happening in Europe in the 21st century."

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6:40 p.m.

Greece's public order minister says refugees living in a squalid camp at the country's border with Macedonia must accept that the border is shut and move to organized facilities.

Nikos Toskas says the country can provide better conditions in other camps within 10-20 kilometers (6-12 miles) of the Idomeni crossing, where up to 14,000 people live in a waterlogged tent city.

Toskas told state ERT TV Wednesday that Greece can offer "no serious support" to such a large number of people gathered in one spot.

He said authorities will hand out fliers telling refugees seeking to reach central Europe that "there is no hope of you continuing north, therefore come to the camps where we can provide assistance."

More than 36,000 transient refugees and migrants are stuck in financially struggling Greece.

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1:10 p.m.

Turkey's foreign minister says his country wants to work with the U.N.'s refugee agency and other humanitarian organizations to properly manage a potential deal with the European Union which envisages sending thousands of migrants back to Turkey.

Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday also defended the deal as the best way to discourage irregular migration and fight smuggling rings taking migrants on often-perilous journeys across the Aegean Sea to Greece.

His comments, after a joint meeting between the Turkish and Belgian foreign, interior and justice ministers, came in response to concerns voiced by the United Nations and human rights groups that Turkey would not be able to provide for the migrants. More than 2.7 million Syrian refugees are in Turkey. Most are housed by Turkish families or live out in the open, and few have government-funded shelters.

According to the deal, people arriving in Greece having fled war or poverty would be sent back to Turkey unless they apply for asylum.

"The aim is to stop irregular migration and to ensure a regular migration," Cavusoglu said.

He added: "We want to cooperate with the UNHCR on how we will house these migrants and how we will send them back to their countries."

The minister said that Turkey aims to build high-standard temporary shelters to house economic migrants who are returned to Turkey but do not qualify for refugee status in the country.

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12:40 p.m.

Two former ministers in Greece's left-wing government have led a demonstration against the European Union, briefly occupying the EU Commission building in central Athens to protest Europe's planned migration agreement with Turkey as well as the country's international bailout.

About 50 protesters staged the occupation, led by the former ministers of energy and social security, Panagiotis Lafazanis and Dimitris Stratoulis. They accused the government of backing the EU plans, which they said would weaken international protection for refugees and leave thousands more migrants stranded in Greece.

The two ex-ministers were part of a breakup last year of the governing left-wing Syriza party, a split that triggered early general elections last September.

Greece's refugee crisis has sharply worsened in recent weeks after Austria and several Balkan countries began imposing border restrictions and closures.

The government said Wednesday that nearly 36,000 refugees and migrants are now stranded in the country.

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12:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Miro Cerar says Slovenia has fully shut its border with Croatia for migrants without valid EU visas and will no longer accept organized trains carrying refugees.

Cerar said Wednesday the effective closure of the Western Balkans route for migrants was made after Monday's EU summit which "agreed to stop irregular migration" toward central Europe.

About 478,000 refugees and migrants have passed through Slovenia, mostly in trains, since mid-October when the Balkan migrant route switched from Hungary after it built a razor wire fence to stop the flow.

Slovenian police say no migrants have entered the county during the last four days. Thousands remain stranded on the Greek side of the border with Macedonia.

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12:20 p.m.

Hungary says is it extending a state of emergency to the whole country in response to the migrant crisis, including additional police and military patrols to stop migrants from entering.

Interior Minister Sandor Pinter says the measures announced Wednesday are needed because of uncertainty about where the people stranded across the Balkans will try to go after several countries announced only people with valid EU visas will be allowed through.

Hungary declared a state of emergency last year in several counties directly affected by the migrant flow and built fences on its borders with Serbia and Croatia which have greatly reduced the number of migrants entering the country in their efforts to reach Germany and other destinations in Western Europe.

Pinter said that a fence on the Romanian border is not necessary for now as Romania has pledged to prevent any migrants from reaching Hungary from there.

On Tuesday, police caught 127 migrants who entered Hungary, mostly through the fence with Serbia.

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11:55 a.m.

A Greek official says there are early indications that NATO patrols in the eastern Aegean Sea are reducing the number of migrants traveling from Turkey to nearby Greek islands.

Dimitris Vitsas, the deputy defense minister, said expanded NATO patrols that started this week have put pressure on smugglers who have continued to bring migrants and refugees to Greek islands at an average of roughly 2,000 per day.

Vitsas told a state-run radio station: "Yesterday, we had about 700 people. So there is a strong eye on the situation."

Turkey is currently in negotiations with the European Union for a broad agreement aimed at limiting the number of migrants crossing into Europe.

Turkey and Greece are backing a so-called re-admission agreement that would allow Greece to send back migrants who arrived illegally.

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11:15 a.m.

Still more refugees are arriving at the overflowing Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border despite the border being shut following a European Union-Turkey summit and a decision by countries further up the Balkan route to only allow through people with valid EU visas.

Heavy rain Wednesday increased the misery of up to 14,000 people in the camp, which long ago surpassed capacity, leaving thousands to pitch small tents donated by aid groups in surrounding fields and along railway tracks.

Yet despite the border closure and increasingly poor conditions, dozens of new arrivals were walking the more than 15 kilometer (10 miles) from a nearby petrol station, men, women and children using flimsy colored ponchos to ward off the worst of the rain and humidity to reach Europe's largest refugee bottleneck.

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11:10 a.m.

A senior European parliamentarian who is a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party says Turkey should not become a member of the European Union.

European People's Party chief Manfred Weber said Wednesday that the center-right bloc "is very skeptical about the idea of membership for Turkey. We actually don't think that's positive for either side."

Turkey has demanded fast-track EU membership talks, an easing of visa rules for Turkish citizens and some 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) to help Europe manage its refugee emergency.

The EPP is the biggest group in the parliament.

Echoing Merkel's position from the past that a "privileged partnership" would be better, Weber said "if Turkey wants a partnership with us then it's important to make sure that Turkey doesn't turn away from Europe."

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