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Greece denies call for 'Plan B' in EU-Turkey migrant deal

AFP , Wednesday 3 Aug 2016
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Greece's immigration minister on Wednesday denied having called on the European Union to draw up a back-up plan in case Turkey reneges on a controversial deal aimed at limiting the influx of migrants.

Yannis Mouzalas's denial came hours after Germany's Bild daily had quoted him as saying: "We are very worried. We need a Plan B in any case."

"The minister denies Bild's translation of his comments," the immigration ministry said in a statement, publishing what it said were Mouzalas's answers in Greek to Bild's questions.

According to the statement, Mouzalas had actually said: "Greece is committed to the EU-Turkey deal, which depends on both the EU's support and on Turkey's duty to respect it."

"Clearly we are concerned, but for now the number of people arriving on the Greek islands (since the deal was enforced in March) does not indicate that the deal is not being respected," he said.

Bild did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment.

Due to its geographic proximity to Turkey, Greece has become a key gateway country for migrants seeking to reach Europe.

At the height of Europe's migrant crisis last year, thousands of asylum seekers landed every day on Greek Aegean islands close to the coast of Turkey.

Arrival numbers have since plunged following the EU-Turkey deal, in which Ankara agreed to take back Syrian migrants arriving in Greece in exchange for billions of euros in aid and visa-free European travel for Turkish citizens.

Around 13,500 people requested asylum in Greece in the first five months of 2016, of whom 677 were granted refugee status, the country's asylum agency said Wednesday.

The number of those granted asylum in Greece is set to rise because many applications have yet to be examined, according to the country's asylum agency.

Of those applying between January and May, 7,032 are Syrian nationals, 1,2458 Syrian and 1,030 from Pakistan.

In 2015, a year that saw a surge in people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, with most passing through the Greek islands, Athens granted asylum to 3,647 people, three times the 2014 number and 16 times the figure for 2013.

In all, some 57,000 migrants have been blocked in Greece since the closure in March of the neighbouring European borders. Some 9,600 of them are stranded on the Aegean islands.

Relations between Ankara and the West have deteriorated over criticism against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's massive crackdown following a failed coup on July 15.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview with the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Monday that Ankara could withdraw from the accord if Europe fails to allow visa-free travel for Turks by October.

But his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier rejected any talk of "blackmail," telling Rheinische Post newspaper: "That is absurd."

"The fact is there are conditions for the visa-free policy and they are known to everyone," he said.

"Turkey pledged to undertake the necessary steps to hold up its end of the agreement. That is not yet the case and Turkey still has work to do," added the German foreign minister.

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