Athens promises to defuse crisis at migrant border camp within a week

The number of migrants at the overcrowded Idomeni camp on Greece's border with Macedonia will be significantly reduced in one week's time, Greek Deputy Defence Minister Dimitris Vitsas told TV network Skai on Saturday.

Some 12,000 migrants are stranded at the makeshift camp, blocked from moving out of Greece by neighbouring Macedonia and other countries further along the Balkan route to wealthier northern Europe.

The government began handing out flyers on Saturday that informed migrants in Arabic, Farsi and Pashto that the border was closed and urged them to accept accommodation at shelters elsewhere in Greece.

About 1,000 have already boarded buses headed to shelters in Athens and other locations, Vitsas said.

Conditions at the camp, which was initially set up to host no more than 2,000 people, deteriorated in recent weeks as the number of people swelled. Rights groups warn the cold, muddy and unhygienic site could become a humanitarian disaster.

A 9-year-old Syrian refugee staying at the camp was diagnosed with Hepatitis A, a viral liver disease that often spread through contaminated drinking water. Greek health authorities said Saturday the child was in stable condition at a hospital in Thessaloniki.

By the end of the next week there will be enough reception centres across Greece to accommodate 50,000 migrants, Vitsas said, a number the government committed to late last year.

Many of the migrants in Idomeni are awaiting the outcome of Thursday's summit of EU leaders on the refugee crisis before deciding their next move, hoping that the borders that have been slammed shut by Balkan countries such as Macedonia will once again be opened, he said.

The European Union has put its hope in a highly controversial deal being hashed out with Turkey, under which Ankara would take back any new migrants arriving in Greece, while the EU would directly resettle an equal share of Syrians living in Turkey.

The perilous Aegean Sea route from Turkey to Greece has been the main gateway to Europe for thousands fleeing war and misery in recent months, creating lucrative opportunities for people smugglers.

The flow of migrants to the continent continued Saturday with another 1,500 arriving at the Greek port of Piraeus on Saturday, Greek radio station Athina 984 reported.

Meanwhile there is debate about which other paths to Europe may emerge following the closure of the Western Balkan route, with Bulgaria expressing concerns that it has not been included in EU talks with its neighbour Turkey.

Vienna offered the country support in securing its border with Turkey, following a visit from Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner to Bulgaria on Saturday.

There is a "common interest" in protecting Europe's external borders, Mikl-Leitner said in the eastern city of Burgas. She was joined by Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil on the visit.

The ministers agreed to provide Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest member state, with a military helicopter to assist border controls, after meeting with Prime Minister Boyko Borisov in Sofia.

Bulgaria is currently in the process of prolonging by another 130 kilometres a 30-kilometre fence erected at its border with Turkey in 2014.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49

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