BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Bad weather cut the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece, the main gateway to Europe, by 40 percent last month from December, the European Union’s border agency Frontex said on Monday.
But the number was still nearly 40-times higher than a year before, Frontex said, as officials in Brussels and EU capitals look for any signs a deal the bloc sealed with Turkey in November to stem the flow is yielding results.
Frontex said Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis accounted for the most of the 68,000 people that reached Greece last month, while some 5,600 - mostly Nigerians - arrived via Italy, attributing the drop of those arriving, mostly by boat, to the weather.
Germany is pushing the deal with Turkey in the hope it will help save Europe’s free-travel Schengen zone from an increasing number of EU members - Austria being the latest example - who are choosing to tighten border controls on their own.
“The numbers of migrants entering the Schengen area in January and February are way too high. The goal continues to be to stem the flow,” one EU official said ahead of a meeting in Brussels about the crisis on Thursday between the bloc’s justice and home affairs ministers.
Turkey’s interior minister will join the EU officials over lunch on Thursday, the official said.
“The weather played a substantial role in the fluctuation of daily numbers of people arriving... What the ministers will share with their Turkish colleague is that the numbers are too high. We want to discuss with Turkey what they are doing, what can they do and how can we help them do it.”
More than a million people reached Europe last year, mainly via Greece after arriving across the Mediterranean from Turkey. The vast majority trekked northwest to Germany in the 28-nation bloc’s worst migration crisis in decades and one that opened deep rifts between EU states.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says more than 101,000 people reached Europe so far this year, mostly via Greece, with some 6,500 reaching the continent in Italy. The UNHCR says 406 people died or went missing attempting the voyage this year so far.
The ministers will also discuss developments on the main migration route through the western Balkans after Austria - the last stop before Germany - said it would cap the number of people it processes every day.
EU officials fear this could trigger a domino effect of border restrictions by other countries, leading to a disorderly collapse of the Schengen zone, with migrants stuck in various points along the way.
The EU justice and home affairs meeting comes ahead of a meeting of the bloc’s leaders on migration due March 17-18.
With a warmer spring weather just around the corner, many feel this would be the last chance to put various elements of the EU’s troubled response strategy to the migration crisis to work, or face a repeat of the chaos of last year.
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska