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Greece seeks EC influence to tackle surge in illegal migrants

Greece seeks EC influence to tackle surge in illegal migrants
Incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made Athens his first call after being elected to head up the European Commission and though he made no promises, by the time he flew out of Athens, Greece believed it had an ally in Brussels. A key issue was illegal immigration, which concerns both the Greek government and the country’s shipowners.

Juncker knows Greece well, having made stops in the country as head of the powerful Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, including a 2012 visit when he warned Athens was staring at its last chance to avoid bankruptcy.

Juncker, who will take office on 1 November, is soon to name his EU executive and what commission portfolios they will hold. During meetings with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, it is believed the two came to an understanding about what position Greece’s representative at the EU executive will hold. Athens has indicated it would like the newly created immigration portfolio which would give it a leading voice in the battle to stem the flow of immigrants into Europe from the war-torn Middle East and North Africa.

Indeed, the issue has become one the EU’s greatest problems. Within days of assuming the six-month European Union (EU) presidency from Greece 1 July, Italy began talks with other EU states about sharing the burden of rescuing migrants crossing the Mediterranean and Aegean in crowded boats. In the first six months of 2014 more than 63,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). More than 500 did not make it, drowning before completing the crossing. Tens of thousands more were rescued from the same fate.

Italian Interior minister Angelino Alfano repeated a call for Europe's border control agency Frontex to take over Italy's mission, known as Mare Nostrum or "Our Sea" which is costing the navy Euro 9m ($12.28m) a month.

After meeting with EU interior ministers in Milan, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said she was discussing with Alfano what was needed for a "scaled-down" version of Mare Nostrum. But she warned Europe’s border control agency Frontex alone would not be enough and member states would have to contribute directly.

In 2013, Greece spent more than $85m to prevent illegal immigration into its porous border. Only $3.5m came from Europe’s border control agency Frontex, which has a major presence in Greece.
Adding to Greece’s woes, according to the Dublin Regulation undocumented migrants found anywhere in the EU must be returned to their country of entry, often Greece.

Cash-strapped Greece had made the immigrant issue a top one during it EU presidency, repeatedly calling for greater burden sharing among the nations of the 28-member bloc. The Union of Greek Shipowners and individual shipping-backed foundations have made regular contributions of floating hardware to the Greek coast guard to help bolster sea-border patrols. Indeed, these run into several million dollars in recent years alone.

Greece’s Shipping and Aegean minister, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis has repeatedly pointed out “Greece and its borders are not unfenced”, but “we must also ensure the dignity of these people who are often refugees from countries at war". He said the "war in Syria, for example, created an additional wave of refugees constantly seeking a way to come to our country".

“Greece’s positions have been included in Juncker’s programme and in the strategic priorities for the next five years,” said Samaras.

As he left Athens Juncker insisted he had not yet made up his mind on the EC portfolios, but said “you will not be disappointed".


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