Europe

Greece offers Lithuania support over sharp rise in migrant numbers

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Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomes his Lithuanian counterpart Ingrida Simonyte at the Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece, July 15, 2021. Dimitris Papamitsos/Greek Prime Minister's Office/Handout via REUTERS

ATHENS, July 15 (Reuters) - Greece has offered to share its experiences on migrant issues with Lithuania as it handles a sharp rise in the number of people crossing its border, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Thursday, after what he called an "orchestrated effort" by Belarus to pressure its neighbour.

The comments, following a meeting with Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte in Athens, come as Lithuanian and EU officials have accused Minsk of using illegal migrants to pressure the European Union because of the bloc's sanctions. [ read more ]

"What Belarus is doing is simply unacceptable," Mitsotakis said, adding that the leaders had discussed how to ensure proper reception facilities, speed up asylum procedures, and also how to "effectively and quickly return those not entitled to international protection".

Amid rising tensions between the European Union and Belarus this year, more than 1,700 people have crossed the border into Lithuania, including 1,100 in July alone. read more

"The total number might not seem very frightening but what is frightening is the trend," Simonyte said, adding that more than 20 times more people had entered than in previous years.

Greece, which has long accused its neighbour Turkey of exploiting the migrant issue, bore the brunt of the crisis in 2015 when more than 1 million people entered the European Union from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan.

At the same time, Athens has also faced criticism for its handling of the migrant issue and accusations, which it strongly denies, of illegal "pushbacks" of migrant boats entering its waters from Turkey.

Mitsotakis repeated that while migration was a problem for the EU as a whole, it particularly weighed on states with external borders. He said he had agreed with Simonyte to coordinate common positions regarding the new EU migration and asylum pact.

They agreed that the new policy should not overburden member states that saw more migratory pressures because of their geography, he said.

"Lithuania will also seek a more effective migration policy", Lithuanian PM spokeswoman told Reuters.

The European Union's executive launched a plan in September to overhaul migration rules to resolve years of bitterness over refugees fleeing the Middle East and Africa.

The most sensitive element would de facto oblige each state to host some refugees - something firmly opposed by eastern nations Poland and Hungary.

Reporting by James Mackenzie in Athens and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius Editing by Frances Kerry

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