ATHENS (Reuters) - Struggling with a growing logjam of refugees, Greece recalled its ambassador to Vienna on Thursday in protest at moves by Austria and Balkan states to make it harder for migrants to head north across Europe.
The unusual step reflected Greek fury at being excluded from a meeting of Balkan states in Vienna on Wednesday to coordinate border restrictions across the region to limit the flow.
“Greece will not become a Lebanon or a warehouse of souls,” said migration minister Yannis Mouzalas. Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, is hosting more than 1 million refugees from the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Greek officials estimated there were 20,000 refugees and migrants trapped in the country as a result of the new restrictions, which began when Austria announced on Feb. 18 it would let in no more than 3,200 people a day and cap daily asylum claims at 80.
European countries are trading bitter recriminations as they wrestle with the continent’s worst migration crisis since World War Two. More than a million people arrived in 2015, most fleeing conflict in countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 100,000 have reached Greece and Italy already this year.
Greece is likely to face a cost of more than half a billion euros this year, equivalent to about 0.4 percent of economic output, even as it struggles to cope with its worst financial crisis in generations.
“It’s a conservative estimate. Costs could go up if there is increased inflow and refugees become logjammed in Greece due to border closures,” said a central bank source.
With reception facilities full, Greek authorities were using stadiums as temporary accommodation. They planned to boost reception capacity by 20,000 by March 6, Defence Minister Panos Kammenos said.
On Thursday, it emerged that the United Nations refugee agency had sought information from tourism authorities on leasing hotels with a minimum capacity of 100 beds for an initial period of nine months, and with immediate availability.
Ignoring warnings from Greek authorities that the border was shut, hundreds of migrants set off on the country’s main north-south motorway to Idomeni, a small community on the frontier with Macedonia.
“We have been here for six days. We cannot take it any more,” said Hasan, an Iraqi in a group of hundreds walking some 10 km (6 miles) from the Macedonian border.
One couple were using a plastic box as a crib for their infant, pulling it along the road. Further south at Tempe in central Greece, another group of migrants walked through a valley shadowed by police. One man held an infant wrapped in a turquoise blanket in one hand, angrily waving an empty milk bottle with the other.
Greece angered EU nations last year with its initial slow reaction to the crisis, and an apparent policy of simply waving migrants and refugees through the country.
In recent months it has tightened controls, but the tone among EU partners has become increasingly critical as Athens accuses them of reneging on a deal to share out up to 160,000 refugees across the continent.
On Tuesday, Athens accused Vienna of an ‘unfriendly act’. The move to recall the envoy for consultations was designed to “safeguard friendly relations between the states and the people of Greece and Austria”, a foreign ministry statement said.
Unilateral initiatives and violations of international and European laws by EU member states threatened to “undermine the very foundations of European unification”, the ministry said.
The Austrian foreign ministry said it could be an opportunity for the recalled ambassador to inform Greeks of the situation, and the challenges for countries lying along the migrant route such as Austria.
Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou and Yannis Behrakis in Idomeni, Francois Murphy in Vienna; Editing by Mark Trevelyan
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