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EU ministers may send more help to non-EU nations to toughen up borders

European Union nations are considering sending more help to non-member Macedonia to better buff the flow of asylum-seekers coming through the Balkans.

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    A woman with her child walk alongside railway tracks as refugees wait at a refugee camp to be allowed to continue their journey to Macedonia, near the northern Greek village of Idomeni, on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. European Union nations anxious to stem the flow of asylum-seekers coming through the Balkans are increasingly considering sending more help to non-member Macedonia as a better way to protect European borders instead of relying on EU member Greece.
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European Union nations anxious to stem the flow of asylum-seekers coming through the Balkans are increasingly considering sending more help to non-member Macedonia as a better way to protect European borders instead of relying on EU member Greece.

With Athens unable to halt the tens of thousands of people making the sea crossing from Turkey, EU nations fear that Europe's Schengen border-free travel zone could collapse, taking with it one of the cornerstones on which the 28-nation bloc is built.

"If Greece is not ready or able to protect the Schengen zone and doesn't accept any assistance from the EU, then we need another defense line, which is obviously Macedonia and Bulgaria," Hungarian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Szijjarto said at Saturday's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Amsterdam.

An estimated 850,000 migrants arrived in Greece in 2015, overwhelming its coast guard and reception facilities. Aid groups say cash-strapped Greece has shelter for only about 10,000 people, just over 1 percent of those who have entered. Most of the asylum-seekers then travel on across the Balkans and into the EU's heartland of Germany and beyond.

Szijjarto said EU nations are "defenseless from the south. There are thousands of irregular migrants entering the territory of the EU on a daily basis."

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said the cash-strapped government in Athens still underestimates the crisis.

"I still don't have the feeling that it has dawned on Greece how serious the situation is" for receiving nations like Austria, he said.

The situation has pushed some EU nations to send bilateral aid to Macedonia, a non-EU nation, to control its border with EU member Greece. There has been even talk of sending military troops to Macedonia to beef up the Greek border.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki said after the meeting it did not matter what the aid was technically called.

"The essential thing is that we have people and equipment to control the border and do registration where legal crossing should happen," he said.

He said Macedonia has already put its own military on the job.

"They're making sure that we have decreased the illegal crossings through our border and we're going to continue to make these efforts," he said.

Because of the relentless influx of people, several EU members have re-imposed border crossings to manage the flow into their nations better. EU officials, however, are doing their utmost to keep the Schengen zone as open as possible and want member states to focus on reinforcing the zone's external borders only.

And the EU is also looking at Turkey to make a better effort to make sure that refugees from the Syrian war do not make the dangerous sea crossing. EU nations have committed 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to Turkey for helping refugees as part of incentives aimed at persuading it to do more to stop thousands of migrants from leaving for Greece.

The EU also called on Turkey to open its borders to thousands of Syrians fleeing fierce government offensives and intense Russian airstrikes and said it is providing aid to Ankara for that purpose.

"Unquestionably, the fact that people coming from inside Syria are Syrians in need for international protection," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Saturday. "On top of that: the support that the EU is providing to Turkey, among others, is aimed exactly at guaranteeing" that Ankara can protect and host Syrians needing asylum.

EU foreign ministers met with their Turkish counterpart for informal talks in Amsterdam on Saturday and Mogherini said "this was the message we delivered."

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