Greece protests to Austria over migrant meet, moves Afghans

Athens (AFP) - Greece angrily protested to Austria on Tuesday after being left out of a planned Balkans migration meeting, as it began sending hundreds of Afghans from its clogged northern border back to Athens.

The new emergency came as Greek authorities had barely completed migrant registration centres on the islands and relocation camps for refugees.

These facilities in Athens were already pushed to capacity after Macedonia on Sunday abruptly closed its border to Afghans and introduced more stringent document checks for Syrians and Iraqis seeking to travel to northern and western Europe.

The move caused a bottleneck at the Greek-Macedonian border -- where 4,000 people were waiting to get through on Tuesday -- and forced Greek police to keep migrants and refugees who had just landed at the port of Piraeus from travelling to the frontier to avoid exacerbating the situation.

At the border, Afghan families boarded nearly a dozen buses for the long trip back south to the capital, where they will be temporarily housed in relocation camps, local police said.

On Monday, about 600 Afghans had protested on the railway line between Greece and Macedonia. Three of them climbed the border fence and were arrested by Macedonian police.

Skopje introduced the measure on Sunday, following decisions by countries further up the migrant route to turn back groups of Afghans.

In addition, a Greek migration ministry source on Tuesday said nearly 4,000 people who landed at Piraeus had been shared out between available facilities in Athens, but hundreds more were arriving on a daily basis on ferries from the islands.

And Macedonian border officials were now only allowing passage to Syrians and Iraqis with passports, rejecting other identity papers furnished under EU regulations to refugees without passports at the island registration points, the official added.

"(The Macedonians) are rejecting EU screening documents, it's a scandal," the Greek official said.

More than 110,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy so far this year, and 413 have lost their lives trying, the International Organisation for Migration said Tuesday.

Last year, the 100,000 mark was only topped about half way through the year, IOM spokesman Itayi Viriri told reporters.

Philippe Leclerc, head of the UN refugee agency in Greece, told AFP that Afghans currently make up around one third of the 2,000 people who land from neighbouring Turkey on a daily average.

"We risk having three very difficult weeks ahead" because of the Macedonian border blockade, he said during a visit to the island of Lesbos, adding that Greece's migrant facilities cannot handle the load.

- 'Not a friendly move' -

With all of Europe scrambling for solutions to the continent's greatest migration challenge since World War II, Austria has invited interior and foreign ministers from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia to a Wednesday meeting called "Managing Migration Together".

Greece's foreign ministry said it had summoned the Austrian ambassador to protest over being left out of the talks.

"Through this one-sided and not at all friendly move towards our country, there is an attempt to take decisions in Greece's absence that directly affect Greece and Greek borders," the ministry said in a statement.

Greece has accused Austria of undermining efforts to reach a joint European response to the migration crisis by siding with hardline EU members who refuse to take any refugees.

Vienna has moved closer to the Visegrad Four group -- Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic -- in their call for tighter EU controls inside the passport-free Schengen zone.

"One must recognise that Austria has already taken 100,000 refugees...but I think it is making a very big mistake by placing itself alongside these countries," Greek junior interior minister for migration Yiannis Mouzalas told Vima radio on Monday.

Vienna last week also introduced a daily cap on asylum-seekers, sparking Greek fears of a domino effect along the Balkan migrant trail.