Greece vows to resolve migrant build-up on border 'within week'

Greece vows to resolve migrant build-up on border 'within week'
Migrants try to get kids shoes, distributed by a Greek man (centre) at a makeshift camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, near the village of Idomeni, Greece March 12, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

IDOMENI - Greece said Saturday it aimed to "resolve" the migrant build-up on the Macedonian border within a week, as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei hauled a white grand piano to the muddy frontier to highlight their plight.

As the rain poured down on Idomeni camp, where some 12,000 people are stranded in miserable conditions, a surreal scene played out with Syrian refugee Nour Alkhzam sitting at the piano and playing for 20 minutes under cover of plastic sheeting held up by Ai and a handful of others.

The stunt was the latest in a series of projects by the dissident artist to shine a spotlight on the people caught up in Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.

With the human suffering worsening at the border after Balkans states closed their borders, Dimitris Vitsas, the Greek minister charged with coordinating the refugee flow, said Athens would try to convince people to move to other reception centres across the country.

By the end of next week, there would be "50,000 spots" available across the country, he said.

"I hope the situation at Idomeni is resolved within a week without recourse to force," he told Mega TV, saying some 400 people had already moved to other centres in northern Greece on Friday.

Earlier in the day, around 200 people demonstrated in Idomeni over conditions at the camp where they have been waiting in vain for the Macedonian border to open so they can continue their journey to central and northern Europe.

Chanting "open the border", they staged a sit-in protest at a cross-border railway line, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.

The border closures have left thousands, many of them children, forced to camp out in increasingly squalid conditions in the area around the Idomeni crossing.

As Europe's diplomats rushed to try and find answers to the crisis, a 44-year-old Syrian refugee began a hunger strike to highlight the ongoing suffering at the frontier. Nazim Serhan, who travelled to Europe with his three children, is hoping to join his wife in Germany where she is battling cancer.

"I want to see her, just for one day," he told journalists.

Also hoping to reach Germany was the 24-year-old refugee playing at the piano, whose husband is already living there.

"She has been victimised by these wars. She has not had the chance to touch a piano in three years," Ai said, explaining the piano as an "attempt to create an opportunity" for her.

He said the aim was to offer a new image of the people caught up in the crisis.

"We want to reveal a new image of them, to relay possibility, art and imagination," he said.

"It tells the world that art will overcome the war." There are more than 42,000 migrants and refugees currently in Greece, of which around 7,700 are on islands in the Aegean Sea. Many more, most fleeing the Syrian conflict, are still trying to reach the Greek islands by taking dangerous boat trips from Turkey.

The Balkan border closures have caused a huge headache for the government of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

This week, EU and Turkish leaders agreed a controversial plan that would see Syrians sent back from Greece to Turkey, in exchange for the EU resettling Syrian refugees from Turkish camps in a "one-for-one" swap.

But the plan, due to be finalised at a EU summit on March 17, has come under fire with the UN's top officials responsible for refugee and rights questioning whether the mass expulsions would be legal.

French President Francois Hollande on said Saturday the EU must not grant Turkey any concessions on human rights or visas in exchange for guarantees to stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

"There cannot be any concessions on the matter of human rights or the criteria for visa liberalisation," Hollande told reporters ahead of the resumption next week of tough negotiations between Turkey and the EU in Brussels.

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