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'Mama Merkel' rules out closing the 'Balkan route' to Syrian refugees

A meeting on in Brussels also saw Turkey trying to strongarm the EU.

Updated 7.23 pm

Greece Migrants A child cries in a tent by the border gate between Greece and Macedonia at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni. Source: AP/Press Association Images

THERE ARE STILL bitter divisions over dealing with the migration crisis following today’s high-stakes summit in Brussels.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker insisted today that a mention of closing the main Balkans route for migrants be dropped from a proposed final summit statement.

The West Balkans route is the main path for migrants to get from Greece to wealthy Germany and Scandinavia.

But Austria last month abruptly capped the number of asylum seekers it would accept, triggering a domino effect of border restrictions along the Balkans that has trapped tens of thousands of desperate migrants on the border between Greece and non-EU Macedonia.

“On the issue of how we can decrease the number of refugees not just for some countries but for all countries including Greece, the issue cannot be that something is closed, but that we find a sustainable solution with Turkey,” Merkel said as she arrived in Brussels.

Merkel is facing pressure at home over her open-door policy towards refugees, which has been blamed by many countries for flooding the Balkans corridor in the first place.

Source: UKRAINE TODAY/YouTube

It comes as Turkey ratcheted up its demands for helping the EU with the migrant crisis, demanding an extra three billion euros in aid in return for its cooperation.

Ankara is also haggling for a refugee swap under which the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey in exchange for every Syrian refugee that Turkey takes back from the overstretched Greek islands.

Under the last-minute proposals by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the 28-nation bloc would also bring forward visa-free travel for Turks to June, and speed up its EU membership bid.

The EU is paying an increasingly high price to secure Turkey’s help in dealing with the biggest migration crisis since World War II, but has little choice as Turkey is the main launching point for the Greek islands.

Greece Migrants Migrants wave a German flag chanting 'Mama Merkel' at a Greek border station. Source: AP/Press Association Images

One EU diplomat told AFP Turkey was proposing “a potential gamechanger” where it will take back not only irregular economic migrants who have reached the Greek islands but also those from Syria deemed genuine refugees.

“In return, we have said for every Syrian they take back, we will resettle one Syrian” from camps in Turkey, where 2.7 million Syrian refugees are living, the diplomat added.

In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticised the EU for a four-month delay in disbursing an original three billion euros in aid for 2016-17 under a deal agreed in November.

“It’s been four months. They are yet to deliver,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

Mr prime minister is currently in Brussels. I hope he will return with the money.

More than one million refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe since the start of 2015 — the majority fleeing the war in Syria — with nearly 4,000 dying while crossing the Mediterranean.

Today’s meeting comes one day after at least 25 more people drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea en route to Greece. It’s believed that ten children died in the incident.

 

Belgium EU Summit Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit today. Source: AP

Help for Greece 

Meanwhile Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras renewed calls  for fellow EU members to honour a deal to relocate thousands of refugees.

He recently said he would not allow his country to become a “warehouse of souls” where the rest of Europe dumps its refugees and migrants.

Some 34,000 migrants are currently stranded in Greece — with about a third of that number camped out in increasingly difficult conditions at the Greek-Macedonian border.

Refugees and other migrants have continued to travel to Greece from nearby Turkey despite the border closures, with 2,480 arriving Sunday, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

Police are patrolling a square in central Athens to prevent migrants from setting up camp there after the site was cleared at the weekend.

Hundreds of people, mostly from Afghanistan, had been sleeping rough at Victoria Square in the center of Athens since border restrictions and closures were imposed by Austria and several Balkan countries last month.

Greece Migrants People sit outside their tents at the Athens' port of Piraeus where over 2,000 stranded refugees and migrants stay at the passenger terminal buildings and their tents. Source: AP

Today, police were instructing those reaching the square to seek refuge at one of several shelters set up around the capital, while municipal workers were cleaning the area, using pressure hoses.

Emergency aid for Greece

EU leaders are set to stand by Greece after having last week promised €700 million in emergency aid for the country and other states to help them manage the influx at their borders.

Yesterday, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras demanded the “urgent” relocation of thousands of refugees to other member states.

The bloc adopted a scheme last September to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy, but fewer than 700 people have actually been moved.

Processing asylum seekers 

Meanwhile, The Financial Times reported yesterday that Brussels had drafted a proposal to centralise the system for processing asylum applications, removing the current rule that requires asylum seekers to lodge their claim in the first EU country they arrive in.

The proposal is part of a radical overhaul of its refugee policy to be announced at a summit on 17 March.

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Christina Finn– © AFP 2016

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