Greece hits out at EU migrant criticism
Greece on Tuesday hit back at EU criticism of its handling of the massive migrant influx, saying the time for blaming Athens was "over" as it prepared to open new centres to register refugees.
Athens has come under heavy pressure from fellow EU members to control its borders better, with the bloc imposing a three-month ultimatum last week to remedy "deficiencies" or face effective suspension from the Schengen passport-free zone.
But just two days ahead of an EU leaders’ summit where the bloc’s worst migration crisis since World War II will be tackled, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said: "The game of pushing responsibility onto Greece is now over."
Kammenos said four of Greeces long-delayed new migrant "hotspot" registration centres were "ready to function and welcome refugees".
The centres will open on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Leros and Samos, which have been struggling to cope with a relentless flow of migrants and refugees landing from Turkey.
A fifth centre on the island of Kos will be ready "in five days" despite strong opposition from the local mayor and residents over the impact on the vital tourism industry, Kammenos told reporters in Athens.
"Greece has honored its commitments – we expect that others do the same," junior defence minister Dimitris Vitsas told reporters.
"We must see if Europe wants to keep its sense of solidarity, or become a space where everyone wants to shut themselves in their own little castles."
Visiting EU President Donald Tusk admitted that shutting Greece out of Schengen would solve "none of our problems."
Each of the facilities will have enough prefab housing to accommodate 1,000 migrants, who will spend three days being registered, having their fingerprints taken and being sorted between those eligible for asylum in the EU and economic migrants facing eventual deportation.
One aim will be to help spot jihadists using the migrant crisis to enter Europe – a pressing concern after two of the men who carried out November’s attacks in Paris sneaked in via Greece, posing as refugees.
More than 850,000 migrants, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, transited through Greece last year on their way to northern Europe.
However, the flow appears to be slowing, said junior interior minister for police Nikos Toskas.
"We’ve gone from 2,500 arrivals per day on the islands to around 200. Yesterday evening nearly zero arrived… It’s too early to draw conclusions, but it confirms that Turkey holds the key to the influx," he said.
Turkey is already hosting 2.5 million refugees from Syrias civil war and hundreds of thousands from Iraq and is increasingly bitter it has been left to shoulder the burden.
NATO is gearing up to launch an operation in the Aegean Sea against smugglers bringing migrants from Turkey, with Kammenos saying the force was "in the Aegean awaiting details of the operational plan being prepared in Brussels".
Greece’s hotspot centres were supposed to open late last year but have faced repeated delays. Athens stresses it has already been registering migrants with the help of 400 staff from EU border agency Frontex.
Two more centres are to open on the Greek mainland, near Athens and Thessaloniki, where registered migrants will be transferred while their asylum requests are examined.
As in Kos – where riot police fired tear gas at residents protesting against the planned centre over the weekend – the hotspots on the mainland have faced strong opposition from some.