migranti grčka.jpg
Photograph: EPA/SIMELA PANTZARTZI

Greece pushed back Tuesday at a Belgian proposal that Athens should set up camps for hundreds of thousands of migrants on its soil, amid concerns that the country could be swamped by people barred from travelling onwards to northern Europe.

Greece has been the main gateway for migrants and asylum seekers hoping to start a new life in Europe. Athens has been criticized for letting people move through its territory largely unchecked, even though it is supposed to police its border with Turkey.

On Monday, Belgian State Secretary for Migration Theo Francken said Greece should organize shelter for up to 300,000 people "in major refugee camps" along the coast, in an interview with the VRT broadcaster.

"Greece is in a difficult situation," Deputy Immigration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas said in an interview Tuesday with radio station Skai.

He said Belgium had also told Athens to push back migrants, but added, "That is illegal." Countries are "panicking" over the large number of arrivals, Mouzalas said.

On Monday, EU interior ministers asked the European Commission to prepare the basis for countries to extend national border controls for up to two years within the Schengen free-travel area, since measures to curb the migration flow have had little effect.

The Schengen border-free zone allows people to move around freely through 26 European countries, normally without the need for passports or identity checks.

But five countries, including Germany, Austria and Sweden, have reintroduced temporary border controls to better manage the migration flows.

Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said Tuesday that there could be grounds to maintain border checks within Schengen "as long as the external borders are not effectively controlled," adding that the EU's executive is preparing for "all eventualities."

But Greeks are increasingly worried that their country, facing a steady inflow of refugees and migrants from Turkey, will become isolated by the rest of Europe to serve as a buffer for people stranded there, Athens daily Kathimerini said.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR is looking for adequate facilities that can be converted to shelters in the short term, initially to house 20,000, the report said, quoting the agency's Greek representative, Petros Mastakas, following a meeting with mayors in northern Greece.

Greece has been under increasing pressure to get a grip of the migration influx, with some EU states threatening that it could face exclusion from the Schengen area.

The commission has insisted, however, that this is not an option.

Media on Tuesday mostly carried angry reactions to pressure from the EU because of Greece's inability to stop the surge of people arriving across the Aegean Sea.

"They want to quarantine us," daily Elefterios Typos said, reporting the threat of an EU-assisted sealing of the Greek border with the non-EU and non-Schengen Macedonia, the next country the migrants cross en route to western Europe.

Kathimerini pointed out that EU assistance in money and staff for the full launch of hotspots – only one of the four large migrant reception and registration centres planned in Greece is operational - is late and that the migration stream from Turkey is not abating despite an EU agreement with the country.

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