austria slovenia migrants.jpg

EU interior ministers expressed concern Thursday that migrants might seek alternative routes to northern Europe after their passage through the Balkan countries was sealed off, while the arrivals in Greece continued undeterred.

Europe has struggled with an influx of migrants and asylum seekers that brought more than 1 million people to its shores last year, with more than 140,000 more following since January. Many are fleeing the war in Syria, but economic migrants have also joined their ranks.

The main route for people trying to reach wealthy northern Europe has been from Turkey via Greece, and onward through the Western Balkans. But countries along that route shuttered their borders this week, leaving thousands stranded and creating a bottleneck in Greece.

Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said his country is working with Albania to prevent a new migration route from opening across the Adriatic Sea and flagged the issue to his 27 EU counterparts, at talks in Brussels on Thursday.

"Logic suggests that, if there were an influx from Turkey into the Balkan route and if walls were to interrupt the journey towards northern Europe, this route could open," Alfano said, while noting that there was no evidence of this happening at present.

Without legal pathways into Europe, "we shall see migrants and the smugglers, the ruthless smugglers that are behind them, trying to find new routes," warned EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere warned that the Mediterranean Sea crossing between Libya and Italy might again become popular, as it was before Greece became the main conduit to Europe.

Others have raised the prospect of Bulgaria becoming a new transit country. The EU member state shares a land border with Turkey, but is not part of Europe's free-travel Schengen zone.

Despite this week's border closures, migrants are still attempting the dangerous Aegean Sea crossing to Greece.

Five people, including a baby, drowned off Turkey's coast when their boat capsized late Wednesday, the Dogan news agency reported.

In recent days, NATO began monitoring the sea route to help crack down on migrant smugglers. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker expressed confidence on Thursday that this will lead to "a substantial reduction of irregular crossings" in the Aegean.

NATO has five vessels - most of them equipped with helicopters - in the area, mainly focused around the Greek island of Lesbos, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told journalists after a meeting with Juncker. More ships are due to join the operation, which will soon move south, the NATO chief said.

But the arrivals in Greece have so far remained steady.

"Yesterday, 2,073 people arrived on the islands," a spokesman for the Greek migration crisis centre said Thursday.

An estimated 13,000 people are stranded in a makeshift camp at Idomeni on the Greek border, where downpours have turned the ground into an ocean of mud.

Doctors from the nearby town of Polikastro said that hundreds of children and adults were suffering from respiratory and intestinal infections.

Around 250 people, mostly families, agreed to be relocated to a camp in the Athens area, 550 kilometres to the south.

In Brussels, Avramopoulos warned that the border closures along the Western Balkan route have created a "humanitarian crisis that risks to turn to a humanitarian disaster" in Greece.

The commission announced that it would make available another 275 million euros (299 million dollars) in emergency assistance for asylum and border control operations.

This takes to 464 million euros the aid provided through two EU funds to help "address the most urgent funding needs of member states in the context of the refugee crisis," the EU's executive said.

In a desperate bid to ease the flows into Europe, EU leaders agreed Monday to work with Turkey on a plan under which Ankara would take back any new arrivals to Greece, while the bloc would directly resettle Syrian refugees out of Turkey.

The deal, which is still being finalized, has drawn heavy criticism from rights groups and EU lawmakers. UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein weighed in on Thursday.

"Among my concerns is the potential for collective and arbitrary expulsions, which are illegal," Zeid said.

Returning Syrian refugees to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan would expose them to unbearable living conditions, he added, urging the EU to adopt a "more rights-compliant and humane set of measures."

Meanwhile, Turkish Minister for European Affairs Volkan Bozkir said that, in total, "maybe tens of thousands of refugees" would be returned from Greece, noting that the scheme would not apply to those already in the country.

Latest news

Trump-style rhetoric is making world more dangerous, Amnesty says

Divisive and "poisonous" language used by politicians such as US President Donald Trump is putting vulnerable populations at risk and making the whole world a more dangerous place, Amnesty International charged on Wednesday.

Canada soon to begin resettling Iraqi refugees, most of them Yezidis

Canada will resettle 1,200 survivors of the Islamic State campaign to target religious minorities in northern Iraq, Canadian officials announced Tuesday. 

Breitbart editor resigns after release of paedophilia comments

Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial editor at the far-right Breitbart news website, resigned Tuesday after the emergence of recordings in which he appears to defend sexual relationships between young boys and older men.

Trump administration opens door for mass deportations

The US Department of Homeland Security laid the groundwork Tuesday for mass deportations of immigrants living illegally in the United States under an executive order by President Donald Trump last month.

Brexit bill: House of Lords says public can change mind on leaving EU

The British public should be able to change their minds on Brexit - just as Prime Minister Theresa May did, the upper chamber of parliament heard Tuesday during a marathon debate on legislation to kick off EU negotiations.

Italian lawmakers, rights activists clash over gay sex club scandal

Gay rights activists and conservative politicians clashed Tuesday after the chief of Italy's anti-discrimination office quit over allegations that money had been authorized for gay sex clubs.

EU countries agree new rules to avoid tax evasion

European Union finance ministers in Brussels on Tuesday reached a political agreement on new rules to ensure that multinational corporations do not declare profits in the countries where they pay the least tax but in the countries where they generate it.

Trump condemns "horrible, painful" anti-Jewish incidents

US President Donald Trump condemned a recent spate of threats against Jewish community targets across the United States, during a visit Tuesday to the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

FinMin expects Croatia to exit Excessive Deficit Procedure this spring

Finance Minister Zdravko Maric said on Tuesday Croatia could exit the Excessive Deficit Procedure this spring and that it was showing progress in correcting macroeconomic imbalances.

Austria seeks to create jobs, but new EU immigrants need not apply

Austria plans to create 160,000 jobs in the next three years by subsidizing companies, but the project has raised concerns because it effectively excludes people who recently immigrated from other EU countries.

Juncker: Not good for W. Balkans that some in Washington want to water down EU

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Tuesday it was not good for Western Balkan countries that some people in the new US administration gave the impression of being against the European Union because those countries needed the prospects of EU membership.

Citizens invited to help create Croatian version of Monopoly

A project to create a Croatian edition of Monopoly, in which citizens can participate by submitting proposals and which could become a souvenir for tourists, was presented at a press conference on Tuesday.

German state approves full-face veil ban

Legislation that bans face veils in select public spaces and situations was agreed by the government of the southeastern German state of Bavaria on Tuesday.

Indian restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok named Asia's best for third year

Bangkok's Indian eatery Gaggan on Tuesday was named the best restaurant in Asia for the third consecutive year by Asia's 50 Best Restaurants.

HGK: 16 Croatian companies to exhibit at IDEX defence exhibition

Sixteen Croatian companies will exhibit their products at the 13th IDEX 2017 defence exhibition in Abu Dhabi, to be held on February 19-23.