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EU unveils huge migrant aid plan for Greece
[BRUSSELS] The EU on Wednesday unveiled a 700-million-euro emergency aid plan for Greece and other states hit by the migrant crisis, in what would be the first time humanitarian cash has been used within Europe instead of outside the bloc.
The United Nations has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees are stuck in wintry misery at the Greece-Macedonia border after a domino effect of Balkan border closures.
Greece is the main entry point for the 1.13 million migrants who have landed since the start of 2015 in the European Union, which has been divided and weakened by the biggest wave of refugees since World War II.
"No time can be lost in deploying all means possible to prevent humanitarian suffering within our own borders," EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Christos Stylianides said as he announced the aid plan.
The funds would be allocated over three years, with 300 million euros (US$325 million) in 2016, and 200 million euros in each of the following years under the plan, which must be approved by member states and the European Parliament.
The EU would also work directly with the UN and other aid agencies in Europe, in another first.
Greece - which insists it will not become "Europe's Lebanon" by hosting all of the migrants coming to the continent - has asked for around 480 million euros (US$520 million) to help shelter 100,000 refugees.
The crisis is particularly acute at the Greek border crossing of Idomeni where 10,000 are camping in the open after Balkan states including Macedonia imposed tight controls.
Macedonia on Wednesday allowed some 170 Syrian and Iraqi refugees to cross, the first group since Monday when Macedonian police teargassed migrants, including children, after some tried to ram their way through the fence.
Bleak scenes saw the refugees stranded in mud-soaked fields and fighting over food distributed from the back of a van, as aid agencies warned of a lack of supplies and the threat of illness.
"We have been waiting for six days," said Farah, a 32-year-old Syrian woman. "The food is not enough, everyone is lying to us and we are desperate." The effects of the migrant crisis continue to be felt across the EU, stirring discord between member states and rising populism.
In the French port of Calais, demolition workers set about razing makeshift shelters in the "Jungle" migrant camp for a third day under close watch of dozens of police officers equipped with water cannon.
The camp has become a magnet for people hoping to reach Britain and many have refused to leave, although there has been no repeat of the violent clashes that erupted on Monday.
"Unfortunately, we cannot fight the police," said Nureen, a Sudanese migrant. "There is nothing for us to do. We will just be left in the cold winter." NATO's top General Philip Breedlove meanwhile accused Russia and Syria of "weaponising" the massive influx of people fleeing the Syrian conflict, in a bid to destabilise the West.
The United Nations said more than 131,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe so far this year, more than the total number for the first five months of 2015. Last year a total of one million entered Europe.
"Europe is on the cusp of a largely self-induced humanitarian crisis," UN Refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesman Adrian Edwards said on Tuesday.
The EU plan for an internal aid mechanism marks a departure for the 28-nation EU, which normally only gives aid to countries outside the bloc, notably in the Middle East and Africa. The EU has an annual aid budget of 1.2 billion euros for external countries.
But the apparent show of European solidarity masks growing criticism of countries that have capped the number of migrants they are willing to let in.
European leaders are divided ahead of two summits this month on the migration crisis, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that after bailing out debt-hit Greece the country cannot now be allowed to plunge into "chaos".
The crisis has also sparked warnings that the EU's Schengen passport-free zone could melt down as more and more states bring back border controls.
In a bid to ease the divisions, EU President Donald Tusk is currently touring the Balkan states and Turkey, the main departure point for refugees.
Ahead of a crucial EU-Turkey summit on March 7, Tusk said he will press for "a more intensive engagement" from Ankara on a deal signed with the EU in November to limit the flow of refugees.