Greece to open 'hotspot' migrant centres under EU pressure

Catherine Boitard
1 / 4

A family pictured shortly after arriving with other migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos on October 12, 2015, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey

A family pictured shortly after arriving with other migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos on October 12, 2015, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

Athens (AFP) - Greece will open four "hotspot" migrant registration centres in time for an EU summit this week despite local protests, as Athens comes under intense pressure to control the massive influx to Europe, a source said Monday.

The centres will open by Wednesday on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Leros and Samos, which have been struggling to cope with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees landing from Turkey in flimsy boats, a government source told AFP.

The centres were supposed to open late last year but have faced repeated delays.

Defence Minister Panos Kammenos is expected to visit the hotspots of Leros, Chios and Lesbos on Tuesday following a news conference in Athens.

Each facility will have enough prefab housing to accommodate 1,000 migrants, who will spend three days being registered, having their fingerprints taken and being sorted between those eligible for asylum in the European Union and those who face eventual deportation.

One aim will be to help spot jihadists using the migrant crisis to enter Europe -- a pressing concern after two of the men who carried out November's attacks in Paris sneaked into Europe via Greece, posing as refugees.

A fifth centre, on the island of Kos, will be set up slightly later, the source said.

Opposition from local authorities and residents, complaining that the influx has damaged their vital tourism industry, has caused delays to the construction work.

Riot police Sunday fired tear gas at protesters on the resort island who are angry over plans to open the centre.

Protests are also delaying the delivery of a refugee relocation centre near Thessaloniki, but a similar centre near Athens has been completed, the defence ministry said Monday.

The EU on Monday said it was awarding Greece an additional 12.7 million euros ($14.3 million) for migrant and refugee accommodation facilities.

The funds "will help Greece to reach the objective of increasing its reception capacity to 50,000 places, as agreed at the Western Balkans leaders' meeting of 25 October 2015," EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said in a statement.

- 'Stop them at a border' -

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who will attend the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, is facing mounting pressure from EU neighbours to do more to stem the relentless flow of migrants fleeing conflict and misery in the Middle East and elsewhere.

"We have to reduce refugee flows. This can only be done if we stop them at a border," Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told a security conference in Munich over the weekend, Ta Nea daily reported Monday.

"If not at the Greek-Turkish border, then it will have to be at the Greek-Macedonian border... Macedonia is willing to do that," he said according to the Greek daily.

Tsipras is expected to discuss the issue with visiting EU president Donald Tusk in Athens on Tuesday.

EU member states on Friday gave Greece a three-month ultimatum to remedy "deficiencies" in controlling the influx, or effectively face suspension from the Schengen passport-free zone.

"The refugees set off when they know they will quickly reach Europe. If this prospect is not available then fewer will embark on this path," Kurz said in Munich.

While Greece has acknowledged delays in the opening of the centres -- calling in the army to help complete them -- the government insists it is already registering migrants with the help of 400 staff from EU border agency Frontex.

Athens last week also agreed to a German proposal to deploy NATO warships between the Greek and Turkish coasts to combat the activity of people smugglers and reduce the migration flow to Europe.