Balkans tighten borders as Turkey waits for EU to meet terms

Ankara warns that Europe will face ‘huge risk’ unless bloc drops visa rules for Turks

Migrants and refugees walking through the port of Piraeus after arriving from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios IN February, 2016: On Monday, some 460 people landed on Greek islands from Turkey – almost as many as arrived during the whole of the previous week and the biggest daily figure for several months. Photograph:   Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Migrants and refugees walking through the port of Piraeus after arriving from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios IN February, 2016: On Monday, some 460 people landed on Greek islands from Turkey – almost as many as arrived during the whole of the previous week and the biggest daily figure for several months. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

 

Daniel McLaughlin

Balkan states are on the alert for any surge in the number of asylum seekers heading for western Europe, as Ankara warns the EU over the issue and Greece struggles to cope with more than 58,000 refugees and migrants on its territory.

The EU and Turkey agreed a controversial deal to cut refugee numbers crossing the Mediterranean Sea in March, and Balkan states also officially closed their borders to migrants.

The result has been a sharp reduction in the number of refugees and migrants reaching the EU, but experts warn of several factors that could reignite a crisis that last year brought more than a million asylum seekers to Europe.

On Monday, some 460 people landed on Greek islands from Turkey – almost as many as arrived during the whole of the previous week and the biggest daily figure for several months.

At the same time, Serbia still regularly intercepts migrants who have trekked overland from Turkey via Bulgaria, or who arrive from Macedonia having abandoned Greece’s overcrowded camps or bypassed them completely.

On Monday, a Serbian joint police and army patrol operating near the country’s border with Bulgaria stopped 64 Afghans who had crossed the frontier illegally and were being put into a van and two cars by smugglers.

Shot dead

Greece and Bulgaria are particularly alarmed by neighbouring Turkey’s thinly veiled threats to let far greater numbers of migrants reach the EU unless the bloc drops visa rules for Turks and delivers aid promised in the March deal.

Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim warned Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borisov last week that any EU failure to meet Ankara’s terms by the end of October “would put Europe under huge risk.”

It is not clear whether Monday’s spike in arrivals on the Greek islands signalled a relaxation in Turkey’s controls along its coastline, but Greece is already struggling to cope with more than 58,000 migrants and refugees in its camps.

During a recent visit to Greece, UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi said living conditions and security at the camps were inadequate.

He also urged EU states to implement fully a plan to accommodate 160,000 refugees from warzones like Syria and Iraq, only 4,500 of whom have so far been accepted.