Tusk tells economic migrants: Stay away from Europe

AFP , Thursday 3 Mar 2016

European Council President Donald Tusk speaks to the media during a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, March 3, 2016. (Photo: AP)

EU President Donald Tusk on Thursday issued a blunt warning to economic migrants not to come to Europe, and chastised EU countries which have taken unilateral action to tackle the crisis.

On a busy day of diplomacy, Tusk visited Greece and Turkey, the two countries on the frontline of Europe's worst migration crisis since World War II, and acknowledged that the number of people seeking to reach EU territory from Turkey remained "far too high".

His travels were aimed at building momentum ahead of a critical summit between EU and Turkish leaders on Monday where Brussels hopes to take concrete decisions leading to a lasting reduction in the flow of migrants and refugees fleeing war, poverty and persecution.

After talks in Athens with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Tusk told economic migrants it was pointless to try to reach the European Union.

"I want to appeal to all potential illegal economic migrants wherever you are from: Do not come to Europe," Tusk said.

"Do not believe the smugglers. Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing."

In Ankara later, Tusk sought to encourage Turkey to take further action to sharply cut the numbers of migrants and refugees taking to unseaworthy boats to cross the Aegean to the Greek islands.

"We agree that the refugee flows still remain far too high and that further action is needed," he said after meeting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

"It is for Turkey to decide how best to achieve such a reduction," Tusk added, floating the idea of a "fast and large scale mechanism" to ship back irregular migrants from Greece.

"It would effectively break the business model of smugglers," he said.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 120,369 migrants arrived in Greece after crossing the Aegean from Turkey so far this year. At least 321 died en route.

From Greece, the migrants then seek to move through the Balkans towards the richest EU states and above all Germany.

With thousands stuck on the Greece-Macedonian border after Austria and Balkan states began tightly restricting migrant entries, Tusk lashed out in Athens at "unilateral" actions by EU members as "detrimental to the European spirit of solidarity".

The border restrictions have left Greece with a huge bottleneck of people as Macedonia lets only a trickle through.

Tsipras said he would like to see sanctions imposed on EU states that undermine joint decisions by the 28-member bloc.

"Greece will demand... sanctions to those who do not respect (European solidarity treaties)," he said at a press conference with Tusk.

Deputy Defence Minister Dimitres Vitsas said there were now nearly 32,000 migrants on the Greek islands and the mainland, and a senior UN migration official said the number could surge to 70,000 in the coming weeks.

On Wednesday, the EU unveiled a 700-million-euro ($760-million) emergency aid plan to help Greece and other member countries, the first time humanitarian aid has been used within Europe instead of outside the bloc.

Greece has been the main point of entry for the 1.13 million migrants who have arrived in the EU over the past 14 months, and has asked for around 480 million euros ($520 million) to help shelter 100,000 refugees.

The United Nations has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis on the Greek-Macedonia border, where aid agencies have reported a lack of food and tents and warned that the wintry weather is taking a toll on people's health.

Tusk said in Ankara his final aim was "the total reduction and in fact elimination of this phenomenon which means illegal migration and this business model of smugglers".

The crisis has raised fears for the EU's Schengen passport-free zone as more states bring back border controls, with both Sweden and Denmark announcing another temporary extension of border identification checks on Thursday.

But sources in Brussels said the EU would on Friday unveil a "roadmap" to restore the Schengen zone by November.

The plan, a draft of which has been seen by AFP, includes quickly creating an EU coastguard system and strengthening Greece's external borders.

Meanwhile in the northern French port of Calais, a group of Iranian migrants sewed their mouths shut in protest at the demolition of the so-called Jungle migrant camp.

The camp is a magnet for people hoping to reach Britain and many have refused to leave for other accommodation, although there has been no repeat of the violent clashes that erupted on Monday.

The Calais situation topped the agenda at talks between French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron in northern France on Thursday.

Hollande warned of "consequences" for the management of migrants with Britain if the country voted to leave the European Union.

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