Greece’s European Union partners on Monday put further pressure on the government over the flow of refugees and migrants by threatening Athens with suspension from the Schengen area.
Ahead of an informal meeting of EU interior ministers in Amsterdam, Germany, Austria and Belgium were among the countries that criticized Greece for not doing enough to prevent migrants from traveling to Central Europe and only having completed one of the five “hot spots” for registering refugees.
Greece was told it must have the other hot spots (only the one on Lesvos is operational) ready by the end of February or face further action.
The flow of people from Turkey to Greece has not slowed in January, with some 50,000 refugees and migrants already having made the crossing this year. There have been 104 deaths so far in January.
European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos insisted that the idea of Greece been excluded from the Schengen zone was not put on the table during the meeting in the Netherlands.
“No one talking about a ‘suspension of’ or ‘exclusion from’ Schengen – no such possibility exists,” said European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud earlier.
However, the Commission is conducting a review of whether Greece’s difficulty in processing constitutes “persistent serious deficiencies” on the external EU frontier that would justify reimposing controls on those arriving from Greece.
It is due to make recommendations next month and Athens would have three months to respond.
The EU ministers also agreed to find ways in which they can legally extend over the next two years the reintroduction of border controls within the Schengen area, which were brought in as a temporary measure.
Concerns peaked about mounting pressure in northern Greece, near the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, on Monday after a Pakistani national was killed and two other people were injured following a scuffle between migrants.
The incident occurred early in the day near the Evzones border crossing, where hundreds of refugees routinely camp out before seeking to cross the border in search of a better life in more prosperous European countries.
According to local reports, the brawl began when a group of Afghan nationals set upon a group of Pakistanis, stabbing one to death and injuring the other two.
Speaking later in the day, the Thessaloniki-based representative of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), Petros Mastakas, briefed members of the northern port city’s local council about the UNHCR’s program for supporting refugees and the prospects for providing accommodation for up to 60,000 people as the number of migrants in the region grows.
Mastakas noted the Defense Ministry’s opposition to the use of abandoned military facilities for the purpose, adding that other options were being considered.
Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris warned that the city was at risk of becoming a “large open-air camp” in the event that authorities in FYROM tighten border controls, stopping thousands of migrants from passing through into the Balkan state.
Noting that there was virtually no funding for tackling the refugee problem, Boutaris said authorities were considering the creation of a screening center in the area of Loutra Thermis.