The European Union hopes Turkey will prevent as many migrants reaching Greece as last year but is readying "contingency" plans to shelter large numbers who may arrive but can no longer trek north toward Germany.
Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told Reuters on Thursday that it was unclear how far Turkey could reduce numbers once the weather improves and, with efforts under way to prevent a repeat of last summer’s chaotic treks through the Balkans, the EU was working with Athens to shelter refugees in Greece.
"As long as our cooperation agreement we made with Turkey doesn’t start giving results, the situation will not be easy at all. The flows will continue," said Avramopoulos. "That is why we have already started working on contingency planning."
"If this happens, we are going to be confronted with a huge humanitarian crisis and this has to be avoided."
When more than 800,000 people, many Syrian refugees, arrived in Greece last year, most moved north through the Balkans to Germany. Berlin does not want a repeat, leaving states to the south along the route tightening borders and raising a prospect that a large proportion of new arrivals may be halted in Greece.
Assessing how far Turkey will help reduce the flow in return for cash and closer ties with the EU is difficult. Avramopoulos noted that arrivals had dropped sharply in the past week or so, despite good sailing weather, but spiked again on Wednesday.
Avramopoulos, a former Greek foreign minister who has found himself handling what many see as the biggest crisis the Union has ever faced, said Athens was slow to start cooperating with the EU to manage the influx but had made "spectacular" strides in recent weeks to identify and fingerprint new arrivals.
He said work was going well on new reception centres on the mainland and with Greek preparations to house up to 50,000 migrants while their claims to asylum are assessed.
The EU executive is also pressing other member states to respond to Athens’ request for equipment, including tents, to deal with a possible concentration of homeless people – using an EU system first conceived for handling natural disasters.
Avramopoulos is also pressing EU governments to make good on agreements to help Greece by taking in tens of thousands of people while their claims for refugee status are assessed.
"This is a moment for everybody to assume their responsibilities, especially the member states," he said.
So far since October fewer than 600 have been relocated under the EU scheme – partly because migrants have been free to make their own way north, rather than wait to be processed.
With borders tightening, notably in Greece’s northern, non-EU neighbor Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Brussels wants to establish order by obliging people to seek asylum in the country they arrive in and then accept temporary accommodation wherever they are sent.
"Everybody wants to go to Germany; this is not possible," Avramopoulos said. "The door is open for all those entitled to international protection. But it will be up to the system to tell them where to go."
Avramopoulos, who listens to classical and film music at his desk to help him concentrate at the eye of Europe’s migration storm, stressed, however, that time was short to prevent new chaos this year: "The weather will improve by the end of March. So, the signal to send is that this must be very clearly done within this short period. Everybody – third countries, member states, refugees, migrants, smugglers – must understand that we are determined to put the whole situation under full control."