Ten days to bring migration flows under control, says EU
Time is running out for Europe to bring its influx of migrants and asylum seekers under control, a top EU official warned amid a heated debate over national measures being taken to curb the number of arrivals.
"In the next 10 days we need tangible and clear results on the ground otherwise ... there is a risk that the whole system will completely break down," EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said following talks in Brussels.
His comments come ahead of a special migration summit on March 7 between the European Union and Turkey - the last stop for many migrants before reaching Europe. The 28-country bloc expects steps from Ankara to curb the flows.
"Things are moving in the right direction," said Dutch Migration Minister Klaas Dijkhoff, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency. But more must be done before the change in seasons improves sea conditions between Turkey and Greece, he warned.
"We cannot rest easy and wait until spring comes and then be assured that what has been done already is enough to prevent a spring surge in the influx," Dijkhoff said.
Failure to deliver results by March 7 would necessitate "other joint co-ordinated European measures," warned German Interior Thomas de Maiziere, without going into detail.
Europe has been struggling to deal with a migration surge that brought more than 1 million people to the continent in 2015. Many are asylum seekers fleeing the war in Syria, but economic migrants have also joined their ranks.
The EU has taken initiatives to secure Greece's borders and register arrivals, improve co-operation with Turkey and redistribute asylum seekers that have reached European shores.
But implementation is lagging, prompting countries along the migration route to northern Europe to take unilateral measures, partially closing their borders.
The move has led to a backlog of people in Greece and warnings of a humanitarian crisis. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has threatened to block EU decision-making processes if the situation does not improve.
"Greece will not accept unilateral actions," Ioannis Mouzalas, the Greek minister in charge of migration, said on Thursday. "Greece will not accept becoming ... a warehouse of souls," he added.
Athens has been particularly angered by Austria, whose decision to impose refugee quotas has prompted reactions from countries upstream along the Western Balkan route. They all agreed further measures at talks in Vienna on Wednesday to which Greece was not invited.
In a sign of the tense atmosphere, Athens recalled its ambassador to Vienna on Thursday for consultations "aimed at safeguarding the friendly relations between ... Greece and Austria", according to a Greek Foreign Ministry statement.
"Austria can understand the nervousness in Greece, as pressure is mounting on Greece to contribute to curbing the flow of refugees," Vienna's Foreign Ministry responded.
At the talks in Brussels, the ministers discussed a proposal giving the EU greater powers to secure the bloc's external borders, but no decisions were taken.
They did, however, agree on separate plans to improve identity checks on EU citizens entering or exiting the border-free Schengen area, as part of a terrorism crackdown following last year's Paris attacks. The proposal must now be negotiated with EU lawmakers.
Turkish Deputy Interior Minister Sebhattin Ozturk joined the Brussels talks, alongside UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and representatives from countries along the Western Balkan migration route.
In Greece meanwhile, more migrants massed on the mainland on Thursday, with at least 2 350 expected to arrive by ferry from Aegean islands. More than 100 000 people reached Greece from Turkey since the start of the year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Earlier on Thursday, the Nato military alliance finalised plans for an operation in the Aegean Sea to monitor migrant smuggling operations and help national authorities in Greece and Turkey crack down on criminal networks fuelling the migration surge.
"Nato's task is not to turn back the boats," said Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, while adding anyone rescued at sea would be returned to Turkey.
Nato sources said the operation is expected to deliver first results by the EU-Turkey summit on March 7. Both Turkey and Greece are Nato members, while only Greece is in the EU.