The Latest: US official visits crowded Greek refugee camp


BERLIN (AP) — The Latest on the continuing issues of mass migration to Europe (all times local).

4:35 p.m.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has toured the overcrowded refugee camp at the Idomeni crossing on Greece’s northern border with Macedonia.

Nuland met Thursday with local government officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations to discuss living conditions at the site.

About 14,000 people are camped in the mud at Idomeni, or housed in an overflowing official camp, hoping that Macedonia will allow them to continue their trek north to central Europe. Greek authorities have urged the refugees to move to other organized shelters in northern Greece, as there is no immediate prospect of the border reopening.

Nuland also visited the Macedonian side of the crossing, speaking to Macedonian officials and police personnel from Slovenia, Serbia and other countries helping Macedonia patrol its border.

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4:15 p.m.

Athens municipal authorities are pledging to expand the Greek capital’s refugee shelter capacity, while extra accommodation will be provided in a seaside children’s summer camp.

About 10,000 refugees and migrants are living in shelters in and around Athens, most of which are operating at full capacity.

Mayor Giorgos Kaminis said Thursday that city authorities are providing an additional plot that will allow the expansion of the central Elaionas shelter, where about 700 migrants live in prefabricated houses.

Kaminis said municipal authorities “will not accept” the creation of informal camps in city parks, squares and streets, where migrants have camped in the past.

He also appealed for greater central government support, saying that securing humane living conditions for migrants must be balanced with maintaining standards for Athenians.

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4 p.m.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has renewed her criticism of other European countries’ moves to shut borders to migrants, which she says won’t create a sustainable solution.

Austria’s decision to impose a cap on refugee numbers set off a chain of border closures that shut the Balkan route used by migrants to trek to central Europe.

Merkel told MDR radio in an interview broadcast Thursday: “This unilateral decision by Austria and subsequently by the Balkan countries on one hand brings us fewer refugees, but on the other hand puts Greece in a very difficult situation. And this situation is not durable and sustainable.”

She added: “the problem is not solved by one (country) making a decision; it must be a decision that is right for all 28.”

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3:50 p.m.

The European Union says 23 of its member countries must start taking 6,000 refugees each month from Greece and Italy to ease Europe’s migrant burden.

EU nations committed in September to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy over two years to ease their burden, but seven months on fewer than 900 people have actually been shared.

The scheme is key to managing the migrant influx, and the EU’s top migration official, Dmitris Avramopoulos, said Thursday that “if relocation does not work then the whole system will collapse.”

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3:15 p.m.

Authorities in Macedonia say 472 people, mostly from Syria, remain stranded in no man’s land on the border with Serbia for a third day as a dispute between the two countries continued over which side should provide shelter for them.

The United Nations refugee agency on Thursday said more than half of those stranded are children and described the conditions they are living under as “alarming,” with migrants sleeping in small tents in a muddy field between two countries.

Austria and Balkan countries on the route from Greece to northern Europe began imposing border restrictions for migrants last month and halted crossings completely this week, following a meeting of leaders from the European Union and Turkey.

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2:30 p.m.

The U.N. human rights chief is denouncing a growing “race to repel” migrants and refugees by some European governments, and says he plans to raise his concerns in Brussels before a European Union summit next week.

In his annual report to the Human Rights Council, Zeid Raad al-Hussein said a draft EU-Turkey agreement on handling the migration crisis announced this week raises serious concerns, including “the potential for collective and arbitrary expulsions” from the bloc.

Zeid used Thursday’s broad-ranging speech to chronicle concerns on issues including some 300 reported police killings of African-Americans in the United States last year; “signals” that Russia wants to close the U.N. human rights office there; ongoing violence in Burundi, Syria, Libya, Yemen and South Sudan; and arrests of lawyers and activists in China.

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2:15 p.m.

As the European Union tries to send thousands of migrants back to Turkey and close the Balkans route many use, concern is mounting that people desperate to find sanctuary or jobs in Europe are already using smugglers to find other paths in.

Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania are alternative tracks, government ministers and experts confirm, and Spain is in contact with Algeria and Morocco to try to stop new routes opening from there.

“We must not let our guard down. We have to be careful,” Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz warned Thursday as he arrived for talks with his EU counterparts in Brussels.

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2:00 p.m.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is warning that the cost of the refugee crisis could hurt Greek efforts to pull out of recession.

The Paris-based organization said in a report Thursday that the addition burden could pose risks for the “fragile state of the economic recovery.”

The report said the preliminary cost is estimated at around 0.35 percent of gross domestic product in 2015. It added that the “foreseen contribution of the European Union turns out to be insufficient, it would result in added pressure on the Greek budget.”

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria was in Athens Thursday to meet Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Gurria said the OECD expects the Greek economy to grow by 1.9 percent next year after years of recession and flat growth.

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1:50 p.m.

Muddy conditions after three days of rain at a refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border have left many struggling to re-pitch their small camping tents in the deteriorating conditions.

Consequently, dozens of refugees were boarding buses Thursday to centers in Athens or taking taxis to nearby camps.

About 14,000 people are stranded at the camp at Idomeni, with some migrants digging trenches to try to drain away muddy pools scattered throughout the fields.

Thousands of people have pitched tents donated by aid agencies in nearby fields and among railway lines. The crossing into Macedonia has been shut since Monday morning, and European officials have said the western Balkan route along which tens of thousands of migrants and refugees had passed over the past year is now closed.

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12:05 p.m.

Turkey’s European Union affairs minister says a proposed deal with the EU on the return of refugees to Turkey will apply only to migrants who arrive in Greece after the agreement has come into effect.

Volkan Bozkir told the state-run Anadolu Agency on Thursday that the deal does not apply to migrants who are currently on the Greek islands.

The EU and Turkey have agreed on the outlines of a deal that would send thousands of irregular migrants back to Turkey. In return, the EU would take an equal number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The deal could be finalized at an EU summit next week.

Bozkir said the number of migrants that Turkey will take back would be “thousands” rather than “hundreds of thousands or millions.”

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10:35 a.m.

Austria’s interior minister says refugees stuck at Greece’s border with Macedonia must understand that they have no chance of crossing. Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters in Brussels that “the most honest thing is to tell the refugees: it’s impossible to get through the Balkan route anymore. The Balkan route is closed.” She says: “The biggest problem is that these refugees still have hopes and expectations, and these hopes are being constantly fed.”

Mikl-Leitner said it is important to warn that the Balkan migrant route into Europe is closed because, she says, “that way you do not feed any hopes and expectations.”

In recent months hundreds of thousands of people have traveled the route north from Greece hoping to settle in places like Germany or Scandinavia.

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10:05 a.m.

Authorities in northern Greece say some 70 children living at a camp on the Greek-Macedonian border have received hospital treatment over the past three days, for fever and diarrhea.

Some 14,000 people are camped out near the border town of Idomeni, many in small tents normally used by summer vacationers. Torrential rain has added to the desperate conditions at the site, with tents sinking in mud and soaked firewood making it impossible to start camp fires.

Government health experts at the camp say there is no sign yet of an infectious disease outbreak, but have been urging refugees at Idomeni to move to nearby army-built shelters.

At the nation’s main port of Piraeus, near Athens, authorities began transporting hundreds of migrants and refugees to shelters in central Greece to try to ease overcrowding there.

The government says nearly 42,000 people are stranded in Greece following border restrictions and closures by Austria and several Balkan countries that started last month.

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8:30 a.m.

Turkey’s state-run agency says five migrants, including a 3-month-old baby, drowned when a speed boat taking them to Greece sank. The Anadolu Agency says the boat went down early on Thursday off Turkey’s western coast, on its way to the Greek island of Lesbos.

The agency said nine people were rescued from the boat that was carrying Afghan and Iranian migrants.