Europe rifts widen as migrant arrivals surpass 110,000 in two months

Friday 19/02/2016
Concerns about risk of ‘humanitarian crisis’

ATHENS - A diplomatic spat between Greece and Austria on Tuesday highlighted the deepening rifts among European states about how to tackle the migrant crisis as new figures showed no let-up in the influx of people fleeing war and poverty.

With migrant and refugee arrivals in Europe surpassing 110,000 in the first two months of the year alone, the United Nations warned that border restrictions being imposed by some states could cause chaos.

And the European Union also voiced concerns about the risk of a "humanitarian crisis" particularly in Greece, which lies on the frontline of Europe's greatest migration challenge since World War II.

Thousands of people have been left stranded in Greece after Macedonia abruptly closed its border to Afghans, creating a fresh bottleneck on the Balkans route to northern Europe.

Athens also hit out at Vienna for failing to invite Greek representatives to a meeting on the crisis with ministers from western Balkan states on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte -- whose country holds the rotating EU presidency -- to complain after the foreign ministry blasted the Austrian meeting as "one-sided and not at all friendly" towards Athens.

Greece has accused Austria of undermining efforts to reach a joint European response to the crisis by siding with hardline EU members which refuse to take any refugees.

Austria retorted that it was a "fixed" meeting format and its summary would be available to EU interior and justice ministers when they meet on Thursday.

Figures published by the International Organization for Migration showed that 102,547 people had arrived in Greece and another 7,507 in Italy so far this year.

Another 413 lost their lives trying, including 321 who perished on the journey to Greece, the IOM said.

The Mediterranean was the scene of another tragedy on Tuesday, with Italy saying it had found four bodies off the coast of Libya and rescued more than 700 migrants.

Tempers have been flaring with European states at odds over how to tackle the massive flow of people fleeing mainly the Middle East and Africa.

In the latest in a series of unilateral measures by European states, Macedonia closed its border to Afghans and introduced more stringent document checks for Syrians and Iraqis seeking to travel to northern and Western Europe.

The move caused a bottleneck at the Greek-Macedonian border -- where 5,000 people were waiting to get through on Tuesday -- and forced Greek police to keep another 4,000 who had just landed at the port of Piraeus from travelling to the frontier to avoid exacerbating the situation.

Hundreds more were arriving on a daily basis at the port on ferries from the Aegean islands.

"We are concerned about the developments along the Balkan route and the humanitarian crisis that might unfold in certain countries especially in Greece," EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Dutch Migration Minister Klaas Dijkhoff said in a statement.

Their sentiment was echoed by Filippo Grandi, the new Italian head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

"I am very worried about the news that we are getting about increasing closures of European borders along the Balkans route because that will create further chaos and confusion," Grandi said on a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, which handles most of the arrivals from Turkey.

"We have said to European states... that they should take more refugees through legal ways, to accept them directly so that they don't go through smuggling rings," he said.

"If Europe can't do this, what Europe have we built?"

The arrival last year of more than one million refugees and migrants on Europe's shores, many fleeing war, poverty and persecution, has caused a chain reaction of border clampdowns, in a blow to the EU's border-free Schengen zone.

"We are concerned by the fact that some member states are acting outside the agreed framework set up for the western Balkans," an EU spokeswoman said.

At the Greek border with Macedonia, Afghan families boarded nearly a dozen buses for the long trip back to the capital, where they will be temporarily housed in relocation camps, local police said.

Skopje's move followed decisions by countries further up the migrant route to turn back groups of Afghans.

"Everything we are doing is in coordination with the agreement from Zagreb," a senior government source in Skopje said, referring to a February 18 meeting of police chiefs from Austria, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia that created a joint refugee registration point on the Greek-Macedonian border.

Belgrade announced a similar stance.

"There is no sense in expecting Serbia to agree to receive migrants about whom we receive clear signals from Austria, Slovenia and Croatia that they will not be allowed in these countries," Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said.

Macedonia and Serbia are among the states which have been invited to Wednesday's meeting in Austria -- called "Managing Migration Together" -- along with Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Slovenia.