Europe must brace for new refugee wave: Greek PM

Chantal VALERY
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Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has accused Turkey of blackmail over its threat to let more migrants leave for Europe

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has accused Turkey of blackmail over its threat to let more migrants leave for Europe (AFP Photo/ARIS MESSINIS)

Athens (AFP) - Europe must be ready for the possibility of a new refugee influx, Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Wednesday, as an unfolding Turkish offensive in Syria could see more people flee the conflict-ridden region.

"Europe must be prepared for the eventuality of a new migratory and refugee wave coming through Greece," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told AFP in an exclusive interview 100 days after taking office.

With some 70,000 asylum-seekers on its soil, -- including nearly 33,000 on islands near Turkey -- Greece is concerned that the Turkish offensive against Kurdish-controlled areas will overwhelm already overcrowded camps.

Turkey houses some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already threatened to "open the gates" to allow more to leave for Western countries if his plans to resettle them in northern Syria fail.

Mitsotakis, who has already met with Erdogan in New York, rejects this as blackmail.

"The idea that Europe can be blackmailed by a threat of unleashing waves of refugees and migrants within Europe is not acceptable as a proposition," he said.

He added the EU had been "generous" with Ankara, a fact he said was not fully acknowledged by the Turks.

The UN refugee agency this week said Greece in 2019 had received over 46,000 people -- more than Spain, Italy, Malta and Cyprus combined.

Though these numbers are a far cry from the near-million that arrived in 2015, Greece is struggling to accommodate the asylum-seekers already on its soil.

"It's clear if you just look at the number that cross the Aegean sea this summer in comparison to last summer, we are facing a problem (of) acute proportion," Mitsotakis said.

- Camps at breaking point -

On the islands, many asylum-seekers sleep in tents or makeshifts shacks as the camps have exceeded their capacity many times over.

Aside from hygiene concerns, the migrants and refugees face hours-long queues for food and an even longer wait for their asylum applications to be processed, leading to additional mental strain.

This week, at least three people were hurt in a clash between Syrians and Afghans on the island of Samos. A fire later broke out at the camp, burning dozens of tents.

Mitsotakis, who came to power in July, plans to address the problem by sending 10,000 people back to Turkey and speeding up the asylum process.

"Our number one priority (is to) accelerate the asylum process. When someone is not entitled to asylum, then he or she needs to return to Turkey," the conservative leader says.

But he insists that Greece will need "more European support, the technology to identify the boats even before they leave the Turkish shore, the ability to communicate with the Turkish coast guard so the boats are actually stopped within Turkish territorial waters."

Mitsotakis is also critical of the refusal of several EU states, mainly in eastern Europe, to take in even unaccompanied minors.

"There need to be consequences for those who choose not to participate in this exercise of European solidarity," he says, adding that he planned to raise the issue at the EU council starting Thursday.

"We have between 3.000 and 4.000 unaccompanied minors in Greece, it wouldn't be very difficult for European countries to divide this number and take some of the burden from Greece in managing this problem."

- 'Ready for robust recovery' -

Mitsotakis' other main goal is to restart Greece's flagging economy and renegotiate some of the country's fiscal goals that are dragging down recovery.

He hopes to eventually win agreement to cut the annual target of 3.5 percent of primary budget surplus which Greece's previous leftist government had pledged to maintain to 2022.

"Greece could be a pleasant surprise within the eurozone. After a decade of crisis, I think we're ready for a robust recovery and I think it's already beginning to happen," the PM said.

Athens is currently borrowing at record-low levels, and the government is aggressively promoting privatisation efforts, such as the development of the former Athens airport as a commercial and tourism hub.

Mitsotakis' reforms include a labour overhaul setting stricter rules for strikes that often hamstring key sectors.

"I don't expect any real reaction, you don't get the sense that this country is on the verge of any social unrest," he says.

"We 're in the process of leaving the crisis behind us, this is what I promised, this is what I have to deliver."