13,000 refugees at Greek border ahead of crunch EU-Turkey migration summit

The huge influx of refugees and migrants has caused major tensions and divisions within the European Union.

AFP| Last Updated: Mar 05, 2016, 21:21 PM IST

Idomeni: Some 13,000 refugees are crammed in unhygienic conditions on Greece`s border with Macedonia, officials said Saturday, with all eyes on a key EU-Turkey summit on Monday that is seen as the only viable solution to the crisis.

The huge influx of refugees and migrants has caused major tensions and divisions within the European Union, but EU President Donald Tusk on Friday struck an upbeat note about Monday`s summit in Brussels, which will include Turkey.

European leaders are expected to use the summit to press Ankara to take back more economic migrants from Greece and reduce the flow of people across the Aegean Sea.

Greece has been plunged at the heart of Europe`s greatest migration crisis in six decades after a series of border restrictions along the migrant trail, from Austria to Macedonia has caused a bottleneck on its soil.

Over 30,000 refugees and migrants have been trapped in the country, around a third of them at Idomeni border crossing, where aid groups report food and tent shortages.

"There are 13,000 people here and nearly 20,000 in this prefecture, over 60 percent of the country`s entire refugee and migrant flow," Apostolos Tzitzikostas, regional governor of Greece`s central Macedonia prefecture, told Skai television on Saturday.

"We can no longer shoulder this strain by ourselves."

Adding to the EU tensions, Bulgaria said Saturday it will send more than 400 troops and security personnel to guard its border with Greece, amid fears the migrant flow along the Balkan route will pick up with the onset of warmer weather.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- a key player in the drama -- meanwhile said Greece should have been quicker in preparing to host 50,000 people under an agreement with the European Union in October.

"Greece should have created 50,000 accommodation places for refugees by the end of 2015," Merkel told Bild newspaper in an interview to appear Sunday.

"This delay must be addressed as soon as possible as the Greek government must provide decent lodgings" to asylum claimants, she said.

Greece sent in the army in February to speed up the creation of open camps for migrants and refugees but has occasionally run into opposition from local authorities.The Doctors Without Borders charity on Saturday began erecting additional tents at Idomeni to shelter over 1,000 people who could not fit in the camp and have been sleeping in muddy fields and ditches, an AFP reporter said.

In past days, the mainly Syrian and Iraqi refugees have regularly held protests in front of the barbed-wire fence guarded by Macedonian riot police, demanding to be allowed through.

Hussam, a 25-year-old Syrian, says the refugees are hoping that Monday`s EU-Turkey summit will provide a breakthrough.

"We are calm now because we are hoping for a positive outcome on Monday, that they will help us pass," Hussam said. "If there isn`t one, I don`t know what will happen."

According to Greek officials, Macedonia has allowed some 2,000 people through its borders in the last two weeks. The same number of people fleeing war and poverty arrive in Greece from neighbouring Turkey in two days.

Some 200 people were allowed through between Friday and Saturday, with Macedonian police calling into question registration documents handed to refugees by Greek police at the islands.

In many cases, the documents do not carry full dates of birth, only the year, while disputes over the correct colour of a police stamp can also hold up the process for hours.

Athens is building additional facilities to house the refugees and migrants, but many prefer to go to the border in the hope of eventually getting through, and are stuck there for days and weeks.

"I haven`t bathed in 15 days," said Almuthanna, a 35-year-old Iraqi stranded at the camp with his family for eight days.

"One of my sons is ill and there`s no medicine. This is war too, only they don`t kill you with a gun, but slowly," he told AFP.

"We hope the politicians will reach a solution on Monday. Hope is all we have left. It will be disastrous if no solution is found," he said.

Greece has asked the EU for 480 million euros ($526 million) in emergency funds to help shelter 100,000 refugees. A senior UN migration official has warned that the numbers stuck in Greece will probably reach 70,000 in the coming weeks.

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