European Union interior ministers expressed concern Thursday that migrants might seek alternative routes to northern Europe after their passage through the Balkan countries was sealed off, while the arrivals in Greece continued undeterred.
Europe has struggled with an influx of migrants and asylum seekers that brought more than 1 million people to its shores last year, with some 141,000 more following since January. Many are fleeing the war in Syria, but economic migrants have also joined their ranks.
The main route for people trying to reach wealthy northern Europe has been from Turkey via Greece, and onward through the Western Balkans. But countries along that route shuttered their borders this week, leaving thousands stranded and creating a bottleneck in Greece.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said his country is working with Albania to prevent a new migration route from opening across the Adriatic Sea, ahead of talks in Brussels with his 27 EU counterparts.
“Logic suggests that, if there were an influx from Turkey into the Balkan route and if walls were to interrupt the journey towards northern Europe, this route could open,” Alfano said, while noting that there was no evidence of this happening at present.
Without legal pathways into Europe, “we shall see migrants and the smugglers, the ruthless smugglers that are behind them, trying to find new routes,” warned EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos.
“The concern remains that there are other routes,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said, referring specifically to Libya and Italy. Before Greece became the main conduit, many migrants crossed by sea from the northern African state to Italy’s southernmost islands.
Others have raised the prospect of Bulgaria becoming a new transit country. The EU member state shares a land border with Turkey, but is not part of Europe’s free-travel Schengen zone.
Despite this week’s border closures, migrants are still attempting the dangerous Aegean Sea crossing to Greece.
Five people, including a baby, drowned off Turkey’s coast when their boat capsized, the Dogan news agency reported. The Turkish coastguard saved nine migrants late Wednesday, the reports said. The migrants were mainly from Afghanistan and Iran.
In recent days, NATO began monitoring the sea route to help crack down on migrant smugglers. But the arrivals in Greece have so far remained steady.
“Yesterday, 2,073 people arrived on the islands,” the spokesman for the Greek migration crisis management body, Giorgos Kyritsis, said Thursday.
An overall 1,100 people were expected to be brought from the islands of Lesbos and Chios to the port of Piraeus on Thursday, the Greek coastguard said.
A further 13,000 people are stranded in a camp at Idomeni on the Greek border, where two days of relentless rain have turned the ground into an ocean of mud. The camp was set up as a pass-through facility for around 2,000 people.
Doctors from the nearby town of Polikastro said that hundreds of children and adults were suffering from respiratory and intestinal infections.
Around 250 people, mostly families with children, agreed to be relocated to a camp in the Athens area, 550 kilometres to the south.
Deputy Defence Minister Dimitris Vitsas hinted that the Idomeni camp could be evacuated because of the conditions, but a police officer in the area told dpa that “no police action is presently planned.”
In Brussels, Avramopoulos warned that the border closures along the Western Balkan route have created a “humanitarian crisis that risks to turn to a humanitarian disaster” in Greece.
The future of those stranded along the migration route is uncertain, after EU leaders agreed Monday to work with Turkey on a plan under which Ankara would take back any new arrivals to Greece, while the bloc would directly resettle Syrian refugees out of Turkey.
The deal, which is still being finalized, has drawn heavy criticism from rights groups and EU lawmakers, who have described it as inhumane and have questioned its legality.
Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner asked if the EU is not “ultimately throwing our values overboard” with the deal, which also offers Ankara concessions on visa-free travel for its citizens and on its long-running EU membership bid.
But her British counterpart Theresa May welcomed the deal, arguing that Europe is now “taking tough action against economic and illegal migrants.”