Greece prepares to help up to 150,000 stranded migrants
THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Greece conceded Wednesday it is making long-term preparations to help as many as 150,000 stranded migrants as international pressure on Balkan countries saw Macedonia open its border briefly for just a few hundred refugees.
"In my opinion, we have to consider the border closed," Greek Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas said. "And for as long as the border crossing is closed, and until the European relocation and resettlement system is up and running, these people will stay in our country for some time."
At the moment, some 30,000 refugees and other migrants are stranded in Greece, with 10,000 at the Idomeni border crossing to Macedonia. On Wednesday, hundreds of more people, including many families with small children, continued to arrive at two official camps by the border that are so full that thousands have set up tents in surrounding fields.
Greek police helped one man who fainted after being turned back by Macedonian authorities. Others waited stoically for rain covers, or food and other essentials in chilling temperatures, some expressing frustration with bureaucratic errors by Greek officials.
Syrian Ramasan Al Hassan said he was stopped from crossing the border after Greek police took down his details wrong, which meant the date of birth on his official papers and passport didn't match.
"I showed Greek authorities my papers — I was born on July 24, 1963 — and they recorded my date of birth as Jan. 1, 1963. As a result, I was unable to cross the border ... It's happened to others too," he said, adding that the error was eventually corrected.
Mouzalas, the migration minister, met for several hours with mayors from across Greece, examining ways to ramp up shelter capacity. The ministers of health and education also held emergency talks to provide health care and basic schooling for children, who make up about a third of arrivals in Greece.
Nikos Kotzias, the foreign minister, said the country could handle a capacity of up to 150,000.
"No one in Europe predicted this problem would reach such a giant scale," Kotzias told private Skai television. "But this is not a cause for panic. The problems must be addressed soberly."
Macedonia intermittently opened the border Wednesday, letting hundreds of people in, as European Council President Donald Tusk arrived in the country as part of a tour of the region for talks on the migration crisis.
Tusk, who is due to travel onto Greece and Turkey Thursday, is hoping to ease tension among European Union leaders — notably neighbors Austria and Germany — before they hold a summit on migration on Monday with Turkey.
"We must urgently mobilize the EU and all member states to help address the humanitarian situation of migrants in Greece and along the western Balkan route," he said.
Greece has asked for 480 million euros ($522 million) in emergency aid from the European Union to deal with the crisis.
EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Christos Stylianides said he wants to swiftly push through a proposal to earmark 700 million euros ($760 million) in aid for the refugee crisis, with 300 million euros ($325 million) paid out this year.