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EU weighs ‘large-scale’ economic migrant deportations to Turkey to thwart traffickers, pared refugee flow

AP/Reuters

Turkey is under growing pressure to consider a major escalation in migrant deportations from Greece, a top European Union official said Thursday, amid preparations for a highly anticipated summit of EU and Turkish leaders next week.

European Council President Donald Tusk ended a six-nation tour of migration crisis countries in Turkey, where 850,000 migrants and refugees left last year for Greek islands.

“We agree that the refugee flows still remain far too high,” Tusk said after meeting Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

“To many in Europe, the most promising method seems to be a fast and large-scale mechanism to ship back irregular migrants arriving in Greece. It would effectively break the business model of the smugglers.”

Tusk was careful to single out illegal economic migrants for possible deportation, not asylum-seekers. And he wasn’t clear who would actually carry out the expulsions: Greece itself, EU border agency Frontex or even other organizations like NATO.

Greek officials said Thursday that nearly 32,000 migrants were stranded in the country following a decision by Austria and four ex-Yugolsav countries to drastically reduce the number of transiting migrants.

“We consider the (Macedonian) border to be closed. … Letting 80 through a day is not significant,” Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzals said.

He said the army had built 10,000 additional places at temporary shelters since the border closures, with work underway on a further 15,000.

But a top U.N. official on migration warned that number of people stranded in Greece could quickly double.

Peter Sutherland said the “inevitable consequence” of closed borders throughout the Balkans “is that Greece increasingly becomes a camp for refugees and migrants.”

About a third of migrants trapped in Greece are at the village of Idomeni, on the border with Macedonia. Dwellers at a sprawling camp there hold out hope for crossing in increasingly difficult conditions.

Greek police said 130 people were allowed to cross the border Thursday.

Migrants said Macedonia didn’t accept computer-generated stamps issued by the Greek police, and therefore they couldn’t prove their identity documents were genuine.

Adnan Abdallah from Syria had waited to cross from Greece to Macedonia for three days, but when he finally was let through, he was turned back because the stamp on his refugee document is computer-generated.

“They say here (in Greece) everything is OK, but on the other side this is not acceptable,” he told The Associated Press.

The EU is struggling to hold its members to plans for a Europe-wide solution in dealing with the mass migration.

Hungary has already called a referendum on EU plans for a mandatory quota system for settling migrants, and says it was considering action to bolster its border fences with additional police and military personnel, and extending the fence to the Romanian frontier.

Earlier Thursday, Tusk told officials in Athens that Europe had little chance of resolving the crisis without full respect of controls on the external borders of Europe’s passport-free Schengen area — signaling pressure on Athens to do more to separate economic migrants from those fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

He also had a direct message for them.

“I want to appeal to all potential illegal economic migrants, wherever you are from: Do not come to Europe,” Tusk said.

“Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing. Greece, or any other European country, will no longer be a transit country.”

Tusk told illegal economic migrants on Thursday not to risk their lives or money to make a perilous trip to Europe “for nothing” but said unilateral actions by European Union states to deal with the crisis must stop.

The ultimate aim was to eliminate the illegal sea transit of migrants from Turkey to Greece, Tusk said after meeting Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens, although he said no specific numbers had been agreed with the Turks.

“It’s not about numbers, it’s about the ongoing and permanent process … which means for me, the total reduction and the total elimination of this sad phenomenon,” he told a joint news conference with Davutoglu in Ankara.

Tusk was on a trip through Balkan states and Turkey to try to drum up support for cohesion on how to deal with hundreds of thousands of migrants — a crisis that threatens to tear the bloc apart — before an EU summit on Monday.

Speaking earlier in Greece, which has been a primary gateway of migrants flooding into Europe for more than a year, Tusk said anyone who was not a refugee should stay away.

“I want to appeal to all potential illegal economic migrants wherever you are from: Do not come to Europe. Do not believe the smugglers. Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing,” Tusk said.

Up to 30,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded in Greece from progressive border closures further up the “Balkan corridor,” the route taken to get into wealthier central and Northern Europe.

“At Monday’s summit, Greece will demand that burden sharing be equitable among all countries in the bloc, and sanctions for those that do not,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said after meeting Tusk.

“We ask that unilateral actions stop in Europe,” Tsipras said in a view echoed by Tusk.

Austria and countries along the Balkans migration route have imposed restrictions on their borders, limiting the numbers able to cross. Many of the migrants hope to reach Germany. Macedonian police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of migrants who stormed the border from Greece on Monday.

The European Commission will present on Friday a list of necessary steps to lift emergency border controls that are currently in place inside the Schengen zone and restore the proper functioning of the free-travel area, officials said.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told a lecture in the Hague on Thursday that Austria had been wrong to close its border with another Schengen country.

“That has nothing to do with protection of external borders. Restoring borders between two Schengen countries will destroy the common market,” he said.

EU officials have told Reuters that European governments, and particularly Germany, are looking to Turkey to reduce the number of migrant arrivals in Greece to below 1,000 a day at most as an initial condition for discussing taking some Syrian refugees directly from Turkey.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting of EU and Turkish leaders, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Turkey must ensure the numbers drop towards zero.

“If there were to be a target figure, it would be zero,” one EU official said, noting that 1,000 people a day would mean an unsustainable 350,000 people a year arriving in Greece.

Tsipras said Greece would continue to do whatever it could to ensure no migrant or refugee was left helpless. But he added Greece could not bear the burden by itself.

“We will not allow Greece or any other country to be turned into a warehouse of souls,” Tsipras said. “We are at a crucial moment for the future of Europe.”