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29 Jan 2016 00:00
Crossing the line: Greece says 90% of migrants entering the country qualify for refugee status, but the EU says 60% of them are economic migrants, who don’t need protection. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)
Greece has been given three months to avoid being suspended from Europe’s free-travel Schengen area because of its alleged failures to get a grip on the mass migration crisis that is causing turmoil on the continent.
The European Commission this week said that Athens was failing to observe its obligations under the rules governing Europe’s 26-country passport-free travel area, known as Schengen.
“Greece is under pressure,” said Valdis Dombrovskis, a commission vice-president. “Greece seriously neglected its obligations … There are serious deficiencies in the carrying out of external border control that must be overcome.”
Greece has been the main gateway to Europe from Turkey for more than a million people over the past year, the majority of them from the Middle East.
The influx shows little sign of letting up, with more than 35?000 people having made the short but hazardous crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands this month alone.
The Germans, as well as several other European Union countries taking in large numbers of refugees, have long been furious with the Greeks for allegedly simply waving the new arrivals through without registration and ID checks and setting them on the Balkan route towards Austria and Germany.
EU governments made clear this week that there would need to be unprecedented action against Greece if it failed to start playing by the Schengen rules.
Wednesday’s warning from the EU commission confirmed that.
Dombrovskis said that a secret EU mission to Greece in November had concluded that Athens was avoiding the Schengen rules on several fronts.
“There is no effective identification and registration of irregular migrants,” said Dombrovskis.
The unprecedented move to sanction Greece is being combined with national governments acting to extend and prolong national border controls for up to two years, dealing a potentially terminal blow to the Schengen regime, which has been in effect for more than 20 years and is generally viewed as one of the EU’s biggest and most popular achievements.
The refugee crisis, coupled with jihadist terrorism in Europe, has put the system under its greatest stress and could yet bring down EU governments if voters protest.
On the frontline of the migration flows – 850 000 refugees traversed Greece last year – Athens is furious at being scapegoated by the rest of the EU and fears the impact of being quarantined.
The Greek foreign ministry released statistics on Wednesday that show that 90% of the new arrivals last year were from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, most of whom would routinely qualify for refugee status.
By contrast, the commission said this week that 60% of those entering the EU currently were “economic migrants” who were not fleeing war, were not in need of protection and should be deported.
The warning from the commission came in the form of a draft report on Greece’s performance, which still has to be endorsed by a qualified majority of EU governments.
The commission would then give Athens three months to take “remedial action” to safeguard its place in the Schengen system.
At the same time EU governments, with the commission’s support, are acting to increase border controls at Macedonia’s border with northern Greece, moves that could see tens of thousands of refugees being stranded in Greece. – © Guardian News & Media 2016
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