EU members back Greek migrant crackdown

Brussels (AFP) –


European Union member states stood squarely behind Greece on Wednesday in its effort to secure its frontier against migrants arriving from Turkey, despite questions over its legality.

The United Nations refugee agency has warned that Greece's suspension of asylum claims -- in the face of a new wave of migrants and refugees -- has no legal basis.

But top EU officials, who visited Greece and its border on Tuesday, nevertheless offered Athens their full solidarity and a 700-million-euro package of support for border security.

There, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, praised Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis, going so far as to call Greece Europe's "shield" against the influx.

On Wednesday, ministers from the 27 member states met in Brussels and defended their partner's actions, as EU capitals warned Turkey not to use refugees as a political tool -- an accusation quickly rejected in Ankara.

"I trust the Greek authorities to comply with Greek and European law," said Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer. "Now we need full support for Greece.

"We must also remember that this is not a random humanitarian crisis, but a guided and accentuated action by Turkey against Europe. Greece is protecting the EU against it," he said.

The ministers were expected to discuss how they could help by reinforcing the frontier and providing a safe harbour for some of the most vulnerable, such as unaccompanied children.

But while several said they might send border guards, few were ready to commit to accepting more refugees.

- 'Protecting our borders' -

Nehammer's German colleague Horst Seehofer agreed that Greece was facing a particular challenge at this time, which justified its decision to stop allowing arrivals to make asylum claims.

"Yes, it's in order, given the situation. Greece is doing a very important job for all of Europe, protecting our borders," he said as he arrived at the European Council.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner warned that Turkey's decision to let the migrants leave had confronted the bloc with "a perhaps historic moment" to secure its frontiers.

Switzerland is not an EU member, but migration minister Mario Gattiker attended the talks to represent a neighbour and a member of the Schengen free travel zone.

He said his country could send around a dozen border guards to support the force Brussels is putting together to help Greece push back migrants and refugees from Turkey.

Luxembourg's interior and foreign minister Jean Asselborn was more cautious on the legal aspects. Europe should help Greece so that "international law is not trampled on", he said.

He said his small duchy could take in 10 refugee children.

- 'Rubber bullets' -

Margaritis Schinas, the EU commissioner for migration and promoting the European way of life and himself a Greek, said he hoped the crisis would lead to broader reform.

"We have a patchwork of regulatory solutions that do not work," he said, praising the EU leaders' "unprecedented show of solidarity" on the Greek-Turkish border.

"Now is the moment to come forward with the new EU package for asylum and migration. And I'm very hopeful that this would be the case in the weeks to come."

Greece's deputy migration minister, Georgios Koumoutsakos, said he was hopeful for his partners' full support.

Criticism of Greece's tactics was being fed by "propaganda", he said. Denying live rounds had been fired near migrants, he said it was just "probably some rubber bullets".

Social media footage from the Aegean region has shown what appears to be Greek authorities intimidating and endangering migrants clinging to unstable rubber dinghies.

Human Rights Watch director Lotte Leicht said: "If the EU's highest officials are willing to turn a blind eye to such abuses and violations of international law, they just invite more of the same."

But senior EU officials have repeatedly warned of the danger of "fake news" being weaponised to undermine European solidarity.

They blame the crisis on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has threatened to send million of migrants and refugees to Europe unless he receives more support in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey on Wednesday rejected the accusation that it was using migrants and refugees to blackmail the EU.