Austria wants not only to crimp the influx of migrants pouring into Europe but to fully stop it, its interior minister declared Wednesday as she convened a meeting of ministers from Western Balkan nations. Greece — which was not invited — blasted the gathering as "hostile."
Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner's comments reflect Austria's defiance of EU criticism and concern about the thousands of asylum-seekers that have pushed daily against the country's southern border.
Austria's immigration problems are minor, however, compared to fellow EU member Greece, which has seen more than 102,500 people cross the sea to its islands so far this year. More than 1 million people reached Europe last year — more than 80 percent of them landing in Greece first.
Austria has recently capped the number of asylum-seekers it will accept daily at 80 refugees and limited the number of refugees it will let pass through the country — creating a bottleneck of refugees that is hurting nations further south, such as Greece.
Greece was highly critical of Wednesday's meeting in Vienna, which was attended by the interior and foreign ministers of EU members Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria, as well officials from Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
"Our country's non-invitation to this meeting is perceived as a non-friendly act, as it creates the impression that some, in our absence, want to initiate decisions that affect us directly," Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said. "[This is] yet another extra-institutional initiative that violates the letter and the spirit of the treaties of the European Union and international law on refugees."
Athens objects to what it sees as Austrian-led attempts to leave it alone to handle the burden of those arriving in Greece by boat and setting off northwards through Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia in search for a better life in Austria, Germany and other prosperous EU nations. The EU says Austrian caps on refugee numbers are illegal.
Germany — the economic powerhouse of the 28-nation EU — is sending conflicting signals on the subject. Its interior minister says his country won't put up in the long term with other nations simply waving migrants through to Germany, and is objecting to the number that neighboring Austria is allowing to transit.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains focused not on border controls but on Turkey, from where hundreds of thousands have crossed to Greece, as key to resolving Europe's immigration crisis.
Mikl-Leitner shrugged off the concerns from Greece and the EU. She told reporters Austria is still in favor of a common EU solution to the migrant problem but the EU needs short-term "national measures" in the interim to stanch the flow.
"It is important and necessary to stop the flow of migration along the Balkans," she told reporters. "We need measures that can be implemented together with the Balkan states."
Defending the need for the meeting, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told reporters the Greeks "are only interested in transporting the refugees as fast as possible to central Europe."
Along with Austria, countries on the migrant route to western Europe already have introduced stricter transit rules in the past weeks. Greece's migration minister said he expects the number of stranded immigrants in his country to reach "tens of thousands" because of those moves.
Minister Ioannis Mouzalas said the Greek government was looking at additional sites to set up temporary transit camps by the end of the week.
"It's not something we can do in one or two days, but we are trying to keep people in humane conditions," he said.
Greece, he said, was applying diplomatic pressure on EU and NATO allies to limit unilateral actions by EU member states to restrict entry to asylum-seekers and to make recently deployed patrols by the military alliance in the Aegean Sea more effective.
Elena Becatoros and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and AP video journalist Philipp Jenne in Vienna contributed.
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