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Migrant build-up in Greece shows EU solution urgent: Merkel

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday the build-up of migrants and refugees at Greece’s northern border showed Europe needed to find a common solution to the crisis at an EU summit next week and reinstate the Schengen free travel zone.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses members of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, in Berlin, Germany, February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

“The pictures show us clearly every day that there is a need for talks,” Merkel told reporters after meeting Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic in Berlin, adding she was in regular contact with Greece’s prime minister.

“We need to deal with the difficult situation in Greece and ... return to the Schengen system as soon as possible.”

Migrants have become stranded in Greece after Austria and countries along the Balkans migration route imposed restrictions on their borders, limiting the numbers able to cross. Many of the migrants hope to reach Germany.

Macedonian police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of migrants who stormed the border from Greece on Monday, tearing down a metal gate.

Merkel opposes the border restrictions and she, and senior EU officials, have said the suspension of the Schengen passport-free travel zone, one of the pillars of European Union integration, could lead to its collapse.

The restrictions imposed by Austria and other countries have also angered Greece, where an estimated 22,000 migrants and refugees were trapped on Monday and a minister warned the figure could reach 70,000 in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday, Merkel rejected suggestions that the situation on Greece’s northern border was similar to that in Budapest last year when Hungary closed the main train station in the capital leaving thousands of migrants stranded. The stand-off ended after the German government intervened to allow about 25,000 migrants to board trains to Austria and Germany.

Asked if she would repeat that if migrants on the Greek-Macedonian border asked for help, Merkel said: “There is actually no right that a refugee can say ‘I want to receive asylum in this specific EU state’.”

She said the situation was not comparable given that systems to process refugees, who are fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere, had been set up in Greece, the first EU country they arrive into, mainly on boats from Turkey.

Merkel said the EU should help Greece deal with the influx.

Financial experts in Merkel’s ruling coalition urged all EU states to agree a financial aid package for Greece, whose public finances were strained even before the migrant crisis.

Reporting by Paul Carrel, Joseph Nasr, Matthias Sobolewski and Andreas Rinke; Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Janet Lawrence