Greece has delivered a stark warning on the eve of an emergency summit over the migration crisis, declaring that it cannot stop tens of thousands of people from crossing its northern border and travelling onwards in Europe.
Nikolaos Toskas, the Greek minister for public order, told The Telegraph that Europe was deluding itself by believing that refugees could be bottled up in his country.
The European Union will convene an emergency summit with Turkey on Monday amid signs that a deal is close. Under this proposed agreement, Turkey would take back all economic migrants presently in Greece – generally defined as all non-Syrians – in return for the EU accepting refugees directly from its camps.
The aim is to stem the flow across the Aegean, where about 1,000 people are landing every day on the Greek island of Lesbos alone. Lesbos has only 85,000 inhabitants, meaning that the inflow into the island amounts to 1.2 per cent of its resident population every 24 hours.
More than 125,000 migrants have arrived in Greece so far this year – 12 times more than during the same period in 2015.
Populist anti-immigration politicians have been boosted across Europe. Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia, was seeking re-election on Saturday with a pledge to prevent any Muslims from settling in his country, warning that they pose a “security risk”. Opinion polls suggest that Mr Fico is likely to win a third term.
A new build-up of refugees is taking place on Greece’s northern frontier with Macedonia where some 30,000 people are waiting to cross. The backlog has arisen because of Macedonia’s decision to close its border.
But Mr Toskas gave warning that the Greek authorities may find it impossible to hold back the migrants – unless other European countries agree to take their fair share.
“They will find ways to go. Maybe with reduced numbers, but they will go wherever they want. So the only way is to co-operate in a comprehensive way,” he said.
“We don’t want to allow them,” added Mr Toskas. “But the borders are very long and we are trying. We are keeping almost the entire police force and army controlling these borders, but it is very difficult to control sea borders and mountainous terrain.”
Mr Toskas was appointed this week to Greece’s eight-member crisis cabinet for refugees. His government has warned the mayors of Greek cities to expect 100,000 new arrivals by April.
But Greece is fiercely resisting the idea that it can be turned into what Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, has called a “warehouse of souls”, arguing in tough negotiations this week that such an idea would be morally – and practically – impossible.
Mr Toskas said that Greece “cannot be the ‘black hole’ of Europe”, and the EU’s offer of 300 million euros (£230 million) of aid – while welcome – should not be mistaken for a solution to the crisis.
Instead, Greece favours an agreement whereby Turkey would take back all economic migrants, defined as those who are not Syrian. The rest would be shared equitably between EU members.
Mr Toskas argued that this is the only practical solution, not least because only 2 or 3 per cent of arrivals actually want to claim asylum in Greece. The rest are aiming to move on to Germany, Austria and other richer states in northern Europe.
“Is it possible to keep all these people who want to go elsewhere in detention camps forever?” asked Mr Toskas. “Are we to keep them there by force? It’s impossible – it cannot be done. So we are proposing these people go in a proportionate manner to other EU countries, and to return the economic migrants to their countries of origin, or to Turkey. Of course we can keep a small number, but it cannot be significant.”
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has been shuttling between Turkey and European capitals in an attempt to broker an agreement along these lines in time for the summit on Monday.
In his letter of invitation to leaders attending the gathering, Mr Tusk voiced optimism about a possible solution. “For the first time since the beginning of the migration crisis, I can see a European consensus emerging,” he said.
The key will be securing Turkey’s agreement to take back economic migrants from Greece. Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said that his government was considering a deal of this kind. “We have started looking at the possibility of re-admitting asylum seekers, notably from Morocco, Pakistan or Afghanistan,” he said. “We already have readmission agreements with Greece, Bulgaria and other countries and we are preparing to sign others.”
But even if an agreement between Turkey and the EU succeeds in shutting down the Aegean route to Europe, experts believe that smuggling gangs will soon find alternatives. Angeliki Dimitriadi, a migration specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that Italy would become the new objective, using “mother ships” and “inflatable rafts” leaving from Egypt, Libya or Tunisia.
Diplomats and independent commentators remain deeply sceptical about whether the possible deal with Turkey – likely to be trumpeted as a breakthrough – will make a real difference.
An EU diplomatic source confirmed that Turkey had indicated a willingness in principle to take back non-Syrian migrants, but it was “much less clear” which EU members would accept refugees directly from Turkey – a key part of Europe’s side of the bargain.
Europe has already offered 3 billion euros of aid for Turkey along with the prospect of a liberalised visa regime for Turkish visitors. Nato has also dispatched a flotilla of ships to help the Greek coastguard spot smugglers’ boats.
But experts believe the possible concessions on offer from the EU will not be enough to cause Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, to keep his side of any agreement. “The money is insufficient and the visa pledge undeliverable,” said Mujtaba Rahman, from the Eurasia Group, a global risk consultancy. “I don’t think Turkey is going to play ball. Turkey is not a solution. Europe is going to have to think of alternative strategies.”
Mr Erdogan, for his part, has raised the possibility of housing refugees inside a new city in northern Syria. He told Anatolia news agency that he had raised this idea with President Barack Obama and the new city would have a surface area of 4,500 square kilometres.
“We have discussed this with Mr Obama and even set the coordinates but it has not yet come to fruition,” said Mr Erdogan. How such a city could possibly be constructed in a war-torn country – and how it would be protected – was left unclear.
Mr Toskas did not dismiss Turkey’s offers of co-operation, but said that Greece will be looking for concrete results from the summit on Monday. “We know that whatever is agreed has to be proved,” he said in Athens. “The whole of Europe has to deal with the problem, because the problem affects the whole of Europe. It is not a matter of sentiment. If it’s a disaster for Greece, it’s a disaster for all.”