In the wake of pressure regarding its membership of the Schengen Area, Greece on Thursday activated the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism, agreed to allow EU border agency Frontex on its frontier with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and to trigger the Rapid Border Intervention Teams mechanism (RABIT) for extra help with patrols in the Aegean.
The European Commission confirmed Thursday that it received these three requests from Athens. The action came after a number of unnamed EU officials claimed that there were calls for Greece to be excluded from the Schengen free travel area because of complaints about the way it is handling the flow of migrants and refugees and its failure to live up to commitments made at the Western Balkans Route Leaders’ Summit in October.
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism allows Greece to benefit from material support. Alternate Minister for Migration Policy Yiannis Mouzalas said Thursday that Athens had not made the request for assistance earlier because it needed to assess its needs first.
“We did not know exactly what we needed and, more importantly, how we would use what we asked for,” he said at a news conference.
Greece sent a list containing 23 categories to Brussels. Among the things the government is asking for are 26 ambulances, six water pumps, four diesel-powered generators, 500 large all-weather tents, 100,000 waterproof jackets, 50,000 woolen blankets, 100,000 sleeping bags and 100,000 first-aid kits.
The agreement with Frontex will see the border agency provide personnel to help register refugees and migrants at Greece’s border with FYROM, where some 6,000 people have now amassed as a result of Skopje refusing to allow anyone except Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, who can qualify as refugees, through.
The situation in the Greek border village of Idomeni is becoming increasingly tense, with clashes breaking out between refugees and migrants from countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Morocco. A man believed to be from Morocco was fatally electrocuted after touching high-power railway cable when he climbed on top of a train.
“There will be a solution soon for Idomeni,” said Mouzalas. “We are trying to convince people to return to Athens.”
Frontex officers are expected in the area next week but their job will be to help register those preparing to cross the border.
“It is crucial that all migrants entering the European Union are properly registered. Migrants at Greece’s northern border will be checked and those found not properly identified will be registered,” said Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri.
The agency says it currently has 195 officers on the Aegean islands. In October, Frontex called on EU member-states to provide 775 border guards for its activities, with 600 to be deployed in Greece. EU members have so far offered 447 officers.
Mouzalas rejected claims that the Greek government is unwilling to work with Frontex. He said Athens had rejected the idea of Frontex guards patrolling Greece’s border with FYROM but had repeatedly asked for more help from the agency in other areas.
“In May, we asked Frontex for 318 people but less than 100 are currently involved in operations,” he said. “On September 25, we asked for 1,600 people and we have so far not received any response.”
Greece has also made a formal request for the deployment of a Rapid Border Intervention Team to provide help on the Aegean islands. “Over 50,000 people have arrived in Greece since November 1,” said the European Commission.
“The scale is immense and the Commission is working very closely with the Greek authorities to assist them in this challenge.”
Mouzalas added that a so-called “hot spot” would soon be ready on Lesvos and that the Greek army would undertake the construction of two more on Leros and Kos.
“There is a temporary hot spot on Chios but we have plans ready for the construction of a permanent one,” he said. “The only island where we are having trouble finding a place is Samos.”