European governments swapped accusations over the handling of the refugee crisis, with Greece denouncing “lies” from across Europe over its troubles in coping with the unrelenting inflow.
Yiannis Mouzalas, the Greek minister for migration, said the fault rests with other European governments for failing to help settle refugees in Turkey and for refusing to house those who hazard the journey toward the continent’s wealthier west.
“There’s a big and unfair blame game against Greece,” Mouzalas told reporters at a meeting of European Union interior ministers in Amsterdam on Monday. Europe, he said, has shortchanged Greece by providing smaller-than-promised numbers of everything from cots and fingerprinting machines to border guards.
The continent-wide name-calling harked back to the worst days of the debt crisis when Greece’s membership in the eurozone was imperiled. Germany and Austria pressured Greece to seal off its Aegean Sea border with Turkey, warning that the unchecked march of refugees from the Middle East would lead to longer-lasting passport controls at internal borders in western Europe.
As the first stopping-off point in the 28-nation EU, Greece painted itself as a victim of geography. Some 900,000 refugees have swamped Greece since the start of 2015, with the average daily count of 1,910 in January so far, according to the United Nations.
“It’s a myth that the Greek-Turkish border can’t be protected,” said Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner of Austria, which last week set an upper limit on new arrivals. Mikl-Leitner said the Greek navy has “sufficient capacity” to keep refugees out.
With some Greek islands within swimming distance of the Turkish shore, the Greek contingent said the scale of the challenge is beyond the comprehension of officials from landlocked countries in western Europe. Nikos Toskas, a deputy interior minister, said it’s hard to stop some refugee-laden boats “except via sinking or shooting.”
Greece said it will have long-delayed reception centers known as “hotspots” up and running by early March, meeting a key demand of western Europe.
Greece challenged the idea afoot in some western capitals for the EU to halt refugee traffic by sealing the border of the Former Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a non-EU country on the route from Greece further north. Mouzalas, the migration minister, called that an illegal “panic” move that would bottle up masses in Greece.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, sought to tamp down speculation that it might be bolstering FYROM’s border to bar Greece from the EU’s passport-free travel area known as the Schengen zone. “We have never discussed a Schengen suspension or an exclusion of a Schengen member,” Natasha Bertaud, a commission spokeswoman, said on Monday.
Only 94 of the 66,400 migrants eligible for relocation from Greece have been sent to new homes elsewhere in Europe, with acceptances by only six countries, according to EU data. Luxembourg, the EU’s second-smallest state, has taken the most, 30.