Migrants 'trapped' in Greece set to triple

Syrian and Iraqi refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border on Saturday. The bottleneck is expected to get worse after Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia imposed a limit of 580 migrants entering their borders each day.
Syrian and Iraqi refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border on Saturday. The bottleneck is expected to get worse after Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia imposed a limit of 580 migrants entering their borders each day.PHOTO: REUTERS

Up to 70,000 expected next month as entry limits set by Balkan states cause border jams

ATHENS • Greece said the number of refugees and migrants on its soil could more than triple next month, reaching as many as 70,000, as a cap on border crossings by Balkan countries left them "trapped" in the country.

"We estimate that in our country the number of those trapped will be from 50,000 to 70,000 people next month," Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas said yesterday.

"Today, there are 22,000 refugees and migrants," he added in an interview with Mega Channel TV.

Some 6,500 people were stuck at the Idomeni camp on Greece's northern border with Macedonia yesterday as Macedonian border officials let only 300 refugees and migrants pass the day before.

The build-up at the 1,500-capacity camp began in earnest last week after Macedonia began refusing entry to Afghans and imposed stricter document controls on Syrians and Iraqis. The bottleneck is expected to get worse after European Union members Slovenia and Croatia, as well as Serbia and Macedonia, imposed a limit of 580 migrants entering their borders each day.

Those measures came on the heels of a clampdown by Austria, which lies farther up the migrant trail that extends from the Balkans to Germany and Scandinavia.

Austria introduced a daily cap of 80 asylum seekers and said it would admit only 3,200 migrants transiting the country.

Last week, the EU told Austria that limiting asylum claims was "plainly incompatible" with European and international laws.

The tighter controls have had a big knock-on effect in Greece, where migrants have been arriving en masse from neighbouring Turkey. Thousands, including many children, are now stranded there as the EU struggles with the continent's worst migration crisis since the end of World War II.

Mr Mouzalas said he expected the influx of refugees to slow when the information about closed borders spread in Turkey, where millions of people fleeing the war in Syria have taken refuge.

"We are preparing an information campaign which will be broadcast in Turkey," he said, adding that this campaign as well as the presence of Nato - which is helping to police Greek waters - in the Aegean Sea were expected to reduce arrivals by 70 per cent.

On Saturday, Mr Mouzalas told Sto Kokkino radio that Greece intends to create provisional camps across the country to accommodate up to 3,000 people each, but "preferably 1,000 people, in order to cover their basic needs for a little while".

In a bid to regulate the flow of refugees until the border situation is resolved, Greek authorities are trying to house them on the Aegean islands where migrants' arrivals, despite the good weather conditions, have decreased, Greek officials say.

Despite the ongoing refugee drama, only one in five Greek people had a clear idea of the number of refugees reaching Greece's soil, according to a new poll conducted for Dianeosis think-tank and published yesterday .

More than two-thirds of respondents voiced sympathy for the refugees but just over half said they would "rather not" see them settle in Greece.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Migrants 'trapped' in Greece set to triple'. Print Edition | Subscribe