Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has asked that the plan to return migrants arriving in Greece to Turkey, also applies to his country, the press in Sofia reports ahead of the EU summit beginning today (17 March).
Bulgaria fears that the closure of the Balkan route at the Greece-Macedonia border would create an alternative route across its territory.
According to EU diplomats, Borissov’s request has been met with understanding by EU heads of state and government, who are expected to reach a deal with Ankara to shut down Turkish traffickers who send people in rubber boats to the Greek Islands.
In his remarks after his meeting in Nicosia with President Nikos Anastasiades on 15 March, Council President Donald Tusk said:
“Another issue to be addressed [in the framework of an agreement with Turkey] is that of possible alternative routes from Turkey to other EU countries such as Bulgaria. This also has to be factored in for the agreement to be effective.”
The plan aims at discouraging refugees from paying traffickers to take them to Greece, as all of them will be returned to Turkey. If the scheme succeeds, logically, traffickers will seek alternative routes, the most obvious being illegally crossing the frontier between Turkey and Bulgaria.
Bulgaria has built a fence at its Turkish border, but dozens of migrants manage cross into Bulgarian territory daily.
Albania also fears that it would become an alternative route, or worse, become swamped with migrants arriving from Greece, desperate to reach the richer north of Europe.
The Italian press writes that Tirana is seeking the help of Rome to make sure that Italy takes its share of the responsibility. From Albania, refugees are expected to try to reach Italian shores, near Brindisi.
“Albania cannot cope with a wave of migrants by itself,” Albanian Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri was quoted as saying on 15 March.
Tahiri said Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano would visit Tirana, the Albanian capital, next week to discuss a joint response in the event of a massive influx of migrants.
Albania is hoping for technical support and personnel to help its police check and record migrant entries and to verify documents.
European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos is expected for talks in Tirana on Friday.
According to the European Commission, the number of migrants stuck in Greece as of 14 March is 45,000, of which 12,000 are at the Greek-Macedonia border at Idomeni.
Any possible agreement with Turkey will not have a retroactive effect and those will have to be either relocated to other EU countries, or will continue their journey further north by themselves, at the risk of their lives.
Greek authorities handed out leaflets in Idomeni on 12 March, informing refugees that the main route to northern Europe was shut. Since then, Greece increased efforts to move thousands of migrants from there, as the spread of infection became a concern, with one person in a sprawling tent city diagnosed with Hepatitis A.
Scuffles broke out at the camp in recent days as destitute people scrambled for food and firewood, while many have been sleeping in the open, often in the rain, amid low temperatures.