EU faces risk of new influx of migrants amid Gaza conflict – Greek minister

(Refiles to add dropped word ‘risk’ to headline)

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) -The European Union faces the risk of a sudden influx of migrants fleeing the Israel-Hamas war, Greece’s Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis said on Monday, as he called for vigilance and more solidarity among member states.

“There is always the risk, if instability in the Middle East spreads, and especially if it engulfs neighbouring countries like Egypt, which has a very big population, things can become really dangerous,” Kairidis told Reuters in an interview.

“We need to be vigilant, we need to come closer together as Europe. (We need) better guarding of borders, combating criminal networks of smugglers, returns for those who do not get asylum,” he said.

During Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, EU governments struggled to cope with an influx of more than 1 million people, mostly Syrian refugees who crossed from Turkey to Greece, overwhelming security and welfare networks and stirring far-right sentiment.

The bloc is now taking steps to overhaul migration rules before a pan-European election next year, after sealing a deal this month on how to handle irregular immigration at times of exceptionally high arrivals, a key demand by southern frontline countries including Greece.

“We need to conclude the new pact,” said Kairidis, who was in Ankara on Monday for talks with his Turkish counterpart on ways to reduce arrivals. Turkey and the EU agreed a deal in 2016 to stem the flow.

“It’s good to have that crisis mechanism in order to deal with a sudden influx together, rather than divided,” he said.

At a time of heightened security concerns linked to the Israel-Hamas conflict, Kairidis said Greece was “at the forefront” of EU discussions for more deportations and returns following deadly attacks in Belgium and France.

He cited the killings of two Swedish football fans in Brussels last week by a Tunisian gunman who was staying in Belgium illegally after his asylum request had been denied. The man reached the EU via the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011.

“We have an unacceptable situation where, no matter if your application is approved or rejected, you get to stay in Europe,” Kairidis said.

“We spend tons of money and resources in order to evaluate these applications… but at the end of the day this all becomes a mockery.”

He called for a common European mechanism for returns.

“Only Europe together can force countries of origin to take back their citizens, with sticks and carrots,” he said. “Greece alone cannot do it, Belgium alone cannot do it.”

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Mike Harrison)