IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — The Latest on continuing migration to Europe (all times local):
Police say a 25-year-old tour bus driver has been arrested in Athens after selling tickets to newly-arrived migrants for a trip to the Macedonian border, and telling passengers that the border was open.
The suspect, a Greek man, was arrested by the country’s largest port of Piraeus, near Athens, while preparing to take 25 passengers on the 600-kilometer (375-mile) trip to the border with Macedonia.
Police say he was arrested on license violation offenses and three alleged accomplices are sought for questioning.
The arrest was announced the day after European Union leaders at a summit in Brussels declared that the Balkan migration route is being closed.
Border restrictions imposed along that route over the past month have left some 33,000 people stranded in Greece, with more than a third of that number camped out near the village of Idomeni by the Macedonian border.
Greece’s minister for migration says the government can provide shelter space for up to 70,000 migrants — roughly double the current number of people stranded in the country.
Ioannis Mouzalas told the Austrian newspaper Wiener Zeitung in an interview published Tuesday that the country could not indefinitely expand capacity at shelters and camps being built by the armed forces.
“We currently have 33,000 refugees and migrants in Greece. If there are 50,000, we will provide accommodation for 50,000. If there are 70,000, then 70,000,” he said.
Asked if the country could go beyond that number he replied: “No.”
Mouzalas said he was “deeply saddened” by Europe’s refugee crisis, which he viewed as a “humiliation and degradation of human life.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to meet with Austria’s vice chancellor amid differences over the countries’ approach to the migrant crisis.
The German government said Reinhold Mitterlehner, who is also Austria’s economy minister and leads the conservative Austrian People’s Party, will meet Merkel in Berlin Wednesday.
Germany and Austria decided together in September to let in migrants who had piled up in Hungary. While Merkel still favors an open-border approach, Austria has introduced a cap on migrant numbers — setting off a chain reaction that has largely shut the Balkan refugee route.
That has also reduced the influx to Germany. But Merkel told SWR radio Tuesday: “I am not grateful to Austria.”
She said it was unfortunate that unilateral decisions were taken when an EU agreement was in sight.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he’s worried by increasingly tough European asylum policies, growing anti-refugee rhetoric and attacks on migrants.
During a visit to Berlin Tuesday Ban said: “Extreme right-wing and nationalistic political parties are inflaming the situation where we need to be seeking solutions, harmonious solutions based on shared responsibilities.”
Speaking after his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ban also said he is “deeply worried by growing anti-migrant and anti-refugee rhetoric and by violent attacks against these communities.”
The U.N. chief said the European Union “can do much more” in the migrant crisis. The 28-nation bloc has been deeply divided over how to deal with the influx of people seeking safety and a better life
German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that, under a proposed deal with Turkey, migrants who come to Europe illegally will get sent back and have to join the end of the queue to enter Europe.
Merkel told SWR radio Tuesday the Turkish plan was welcomed by all 28 European Union countries in Brussels the previous night. She says the plan would make it unattractive for migrants to pay people smugglers to take them to Greece.
As part of a broader deal Turkey has offered to take back illegal migrants if an equal number are allowed into the EU legally.
Merkel says that “whoever comes illegally won’t then be among those who can come to Europe, at least not among the first but rather they’ll have to join the end of the queue.”
European Union lawmakers say they will keep a close eye on any EU deal to send thousands of migrants in Greece back to Turkey to ensure that people fleeing conflict are not denied asylum.
The head of the EU parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee said in a statement Tuesday that members will meet with Greek and EU officials “to ensure that basic conditions for asylum claims are met.”
Chairman Claude Moraes says “it is important that the EU does not ignore its values in the face of people fleeing war and persecution by simply creating push-backs.”
Under the in-principle deal hammered out overnight, the EU would accept one Syrian refugee in need of asylum for every one irregular migrant that Turkey takes back from Greece.
Amnesty International is warning that a European Union scheme to send thousands of migrants back to Turkey is legally flawed.
The human rights group said in a statement Tuesday that EU plans to designate Turkey as a safe country for migrants are “alarmingly short-sighted and inhumane” because Ankara does not properly care for them.
The head of the group’s European office, Iverna McGowan, said that “Turkey has forcibly returned refugees to Syria and many refugees in the country live in desperate conditions without adequate housing.”
She said that “by no stretch of imagination can Turkey be considered a ‘safe third country’ that the EU can cozily outsource its obligations to.”
Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar says an EU summit — dealing with the surge of migrants and refugees over the so-called Western Balkans route — has sent “a very clear message to all traffickers and all irregular migrants that this route no longer exists, it is closed.”
Cerar says “today or tomorrow” Slovenia will start allowing passage only to those migrants with documents required by EU’s Schengen-member states. He did not specify the required documents.
He says “the irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end.”
In February, the countries along the Balkan route that starts in Greece and ends in Austria started imposing strict border rules. The radically reduced flow of migrants over the Balkan borders has created a backlog of thousands of people now stranded in Greece after arriving from Turkey.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu will continue talks with Greece on the migration crisis at a meeting planned in the Turkish coastal city of Izmir.
The two leaders will head talks Tuesday at a joint meeting of cabinet ministers, hours after a European Union summit in Brussels outlined a deal that would see migrants being sent back from EU-member Greece to Turkey on a larger scale.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras flew directly to the Turkish city from Brussels to attend the talks.
Success of the European plan outlined early Tuesday will hinge largely on implementation of a Greek-Turkish readmission agreement to accept the return of migrants not given refugee status.
Before leaving Brussels, Tsipras said: “Our talks continue in Izmir, where I believe we will have a historic meeting, with a decision to amend the readmission agreement that sees Turkey take back all migrants who are not entitled to protection under international treaties.”
The U.N. refugee agency is expressing concern about a possible deal between the European Union and Turkey including the prospect of “blanket returns” of refugees from the bloc to Turkey.
UNHCR Europe bureau director Vincent Cochetel told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that collective expulsion of foreigners is prohibited under international law.
Amid concerns in Europe about illegal migration into the continent, Cochetel said he was “tired of hearing about irregular migrants” because 91 percent of those arriving in Greece are from war-torn countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
He noted that Turkey has done more to take in refugees than the EU and has become “the largest country of asylum in the world.” Turkey is home to 2.75 million refugees — chiefly from neighboring Syria.
Disease control experts have been sent to a refugee camp at the Greek-Macedonian border, but Greece’s Health Ministry says the measure is largely precautionary.
The government says two mobile units from the state-run Center for Disease Control and Prevention began operating Tuesday at the border camp in Idomeni, where some 14,000 people are camped out despite Balkan border closures.
“There is a large number of children and young women and pregnant women that require attention,” said Yiannis Baskozos, general secretary of Health Ministry.
“At this time we do not have any cases of concern (of disease outbreak). There is always that danger and we are monitoring this possibility. But there is no reason to panic.”
Czech police are conducting a drill along the border with Austria to prepare for increased numbers of migrants.
Some 200 policemen and another 20 customs officers participated in Tuesday’s exercise called “Wave,” that is meant to train to be ready to control and register the refugees at border crossings and along the 464-kilometer (288-mile) border with Austria.
The Czechs have been already doing some random checks on the border with Austria but have not renewed the border control as some other EU nations. The Czech Republic has not been on the route the refugees are using on their way to rich western countries.
A similar drill was held by police and military forces in September.
Greece’s government says it has no plans to forcibly evacuate a refugee camp at the border with Macedonia, but says it will pressure migrants to use newly built shelters in nearby areas.
Giorgos Kyritsis, a spokesman for an emergency government committee set up last week to deal with the migrant crisis, said authorities were concerned that more people would try to reach the sprawling border camp at Idomeni after European Union leaders and Turkey reached an outline agreement which would close the border. It could be finalized at a summit on March 17.
“So in this time gap, it is understandable that people will want to try to change the facts on the grounds and to go to (Idomeni) and to be at the border … when a decision is made,” he told state TV.
The government says it will have 16,000 additional places ready at camps and shelters by the end of the week, expanding to eight new sites around Greece.
The German government says that some 61,000 people were registered as asylum-seekers in the country last month — a significant drop compared with January.
The Interior Ministry said that the number of people arriving in Germany dropped to 61,428 in February from 91,671 in January. The ministry didn’t deal the reasons for that, but other countries along the Balkan route that hundreds of thousands of migrants used last year started imposing border restrictions in February.
Germany registered nearly 1.1 million new arrivals last year — a number likely inflated by double registrations and people who traveled on to other countries — and is keen to bring the numbers down in 2016.
Syrians were the biggest single group of new arrivals in February, followed by Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians and Somalis.
Thousands of refugees stranded on the Greek-Macedonia border are waking up to the realization that their onward route through the Balkans to wealthy European Union countries is effectively closed.
About 13,000-14,000 people are stranded near the village of Idomeni, where many have been waiting for two weeks or more to be among the small numbers which have been allowed through each day. The mood Tuesday morning was visibly grim among those at the front of the queue waiting to cross.
EU leaders said Monday said they had reached the outlines of a possible deal with Ankara to return thousands of migrants to Turkey, and also said that “irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end.”