Athens and Skopje in blame game over refugees

Athens and Skopje in blame game over refugees

Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia were engaged in a bitter row Tuesday after some 1,500 refugees marched out of the Idomeni border camp on Monday and illegally crossed into FYROM.

The refugees were rounded up by FYROM authorities but the incident has put a strain on bilateral ties.

In a tweet, Skopje’s Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki accused Greece of “organizing” the move to push refugees out of the country and into FYROM through illegal passages.

The Greek government vehemently denied the accusation and launched an investigation into who organized the march of refugees through the village of Hamilo into the neighboring country. According to Greek authorities, refugees bypassed barbed wire border fencing erected by FYROM over mountainous terrain and a river, in what appeared to be a well-planned diversion.

Although officially the government has not named its suspects, in private conversations, some officials are reportedly pointing the finger at NGOs, but refuse to publicize their views so as to avoid a spat with them “at this moment in time.”

Tsipras complained on Monday that the Idomeni camp was constantly being fed with “misinformation,” saying that it was unacceptable that the “flow of information is controlled by groups under the guise of NGOs who guide people into situations of further exploitation.”

The government reiterated Tuesday that it does not plan to forcefully move the refugees from Idomeni, with officials saying that convincing people to leave is the biggest challenge they face.

FYROM authorities said Tuesday they had rounded up the migrants and sent them all back to Greece, but this was not confirmed by Greece.

“No one has been returned from our official border crossings, and no request has been submitted by FYROM,” said Giorgos Kyritsis, the spokesman for Greece’s migration coordination center.

With at least 10,500 people still stranded at the Idomeni camp, Tsipras has ruled out that border crossings on the Balkan route will open anytime soon and urged refugees to move to other reception centers set up across the country in the government’s efforts to end the bottleneck in the overcrowded camp and to afford more humane conditions.

Meanwhile, Greece heads to Thursday’s EU-Turkey summit on the refugees trying to strike a delicate balance between its sensitive national interests and finding a way to stem the flow of refugees coming through Turkey.

The EU hopes to complete a draft deal it struck with Turkey last week whereby Ankara would take back all the migrants entering the EU illegally in exchange for money, visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens and the expediting of its stalled EU membership talks.

But apart from objections raised in many parts of the continent over the EU’s willingness to compromise its principles to find a solution, it also raised opposition closer to home, in Cyprus and Greece itself, over the perceived threat to the country’s national interests vis-a-vis Turkey.

On Tuesday, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades rejected the offer made by the EU to Turkey to accelerate its accession process, saying that Ankara must “first fulfill its obligations,” which stipulate the recognition of Cyprus and the opening up of Turkish airports and ports to Cypriot passengers, ships and trade.

Any deal must get the approval of all 28 bloc members.

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