Greece blasts 'lies' in EU migrant talks

2016-01-25 22:34
A Red Cross volunteer carries a child at Ierapetra, Greece.  (Petros Giannakouris, AP)

A Red Cross volunteer carries a child at Ierapetra, Greece. (Petros Giannakouris, AP)

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Amsterdam - Greece lashed out on Monday at what it called "lies" by its EU partners following calls for Athens to be suspended from the Schengen passport-free zone if it fails to staunch the flow of migrants into Europe.

At a tense meeting of European Union interior ministers in Amsterdam, Austria and Germany urged Athens to do more to deal with the continent's biggest crisis of its kind since World War II.

But Greece's interior minister for migration, Yiannis Mouzalas, insisted his country - already buffeted by a debt crisis that almost drove it out of the euro last year - was doing its best in difficult circumstances.

"We are tired to listen that we cannot secure our borders," Mouzalas told reporters in Amsterdam. "We are told that we don't want coastguards, it's a lie - we want more coastguards."

The short sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands accounted for most of the one million migrants and refugees who arrived in Europe last year, but Mouzalas said it would be illegal to push back migrants from Greek waters.

"According to international law, to the law of the sea, according to the Geneva Convention, according to the European, to the Greek law, the only way to act on the sea border is to make rescue," he said.

Schengen exclusion?

The rest of the EU is, however, turning up the pressure on Athens, with growing frustration about its refusal to let EU border guards on its turf, which Greece views as a challenge to its sovereignty.

Last week Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner warned Athens could face "temporary exclusion" from Schengen, the 26-country zone of mainly EU countries that embodies the European dream of free movement.

Austria, Germany and several other Schengen member states have already reintroduced temporary checks at their internal borders, raising fears the passport-free system could collapse.

"Greece has to reinforce its [border] resources and accept help," Mikl-Leitner told reporters in Amsterdam on Monday, adding that it was a "myth" that the Turkish sea border could not be secured.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere - whose country's decision last year to open its doors to one million asylum seekers sparked anger in transit countries - urged Greece to "do its duty".

"We want to save Schengen, we want common European solutions, but the clock is ticking," said de Maiziere, adding that the key to solving the crisis was a deal with Turkey to staunch the flow of migrants.

Sweden stabbing 

In Brussels, European Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud insisted there was no plan to suspend Greece.

"We have never discussed either a suspension or exclusion. The possibility does not exist," she said.

The Turkish accord signed last year involves Brussels paying Ankara $3.2bn in aid for Syrian refugees and speeding up its EU membership process, in return for Turkey tackling people smugglers and improving conditions for refugees.

The payment has been held up by concerns that Turkey is not complying, but EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said during a visit to Ankara on Monday that she was confident Turkey would get the money "in reasonable time".

Brussels is also exploring other ways of stemming the flow of migrants, particularly through the Western Balkans.

The European Commission confirmed on Monday that it had sent a mission to non-EU Macedonia to discuss how it could help staunch the large numbers passing over the border from Greece.

It said commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker had replied to a letter from Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, calling for Macedonia to effectively seal off its border with Greece and staunch the flow through the Balkans.

But the migration crisis continues to cause tensions across Europe.

In Sweden, a young asylum seeker allegedly stabbed to death a female employee at the refugee centre for unaccompanied minors where he was staying.

In Britain, asylum seekers will no longer have to wear wristbands to claim food at a centre in Cardiff, the Welsh capital, its management announced Monday, after the practice sparked outcry and comparisons with Nazi Germany.

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