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School in north Greece a flashpoint in refugee debate

Associated Press Associated Press 13/09/2016 By COSTAS KANTOURIS and ELENA BECATOROS, Associated Press
A little girl runs among tents as she plays with other children at Ritsona refugee camp, which hosts about 600 refugees and migrants, north of Athens, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. The European Union will add 115 million euros ($129 million) in funding to humanitarian organizations in Greece to assist programs for refugees and migrants before the winter, officials said Saturday. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris) © The Associated Press A little girl runs among tents as she plays with other children at Ritsona refugee camp, which hosts about 600 refugees and migrants, north of Athens, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. The European Union will add 115 million euros ($129 million) in funding to humanitarian organizations in Greece to assist programs for refugees and migrants before the winter, officials said Saturday. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

THESSALONIKI, Greece — Greece's left-wing government on Tuesday criticized a parents' association which is threatening to block refugees and migrants from attending an elementary school in the north of the country, citing fears of infectious diseases.

The parents' association of the school in the Thessaloniki suburb of Oraiokastro said its members would occupy the building in protest if refugees from nearby camps were allowed to attend.

Association head Nikolaos Koritsis told the AP he had been informed of cases of tuberculosis and hepatitis in the camps. He said he would call on parents to review their opposition if he received health ministry assurances that the refugee children had been vaccinated.

"This is a health issue," he said.

Greek children are not vaccinated against tuberculosis, as the disease is considered to have been eradicated in the country.

Nikos Filis, the education minister, said health concerns were unjustified because an immunization program is included in the school integration scheme.

Greek schools started Monday and the government is planning to integrate more than 15,000 refugee and migrant children into the national education system, starting at the end of the month.

It was not immediately clear how many refugee and migrant children were planned for the school in Oraiokastro. Under the initial plan, they would attend separate classes after most local children had finished lessons.

Filis criticized the parents association but did not say whether the government would act against it.

"There is no justification for this. There is prejudice," Filis told private Real FM radio. "Fortunately this is the reaction of a very small minority of parents."

Oraiokastro's mayor, Asterios Gavotsis, said the government should use some 9 million euros ($10 million) which he said was earmarked for transporting children to the school to rent a different building to host classes.

The extreme-right Golden Dawn party praised the parents' action as "resistance to Islamization and efforts to undermine the education system."

Some 60,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece due to European border closures earlier this year. Most live in camps on the Greek mainland — at old army bases, abandoned factories, and a dilapidated sports complex used for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The government has promised to create more permanent migrant accommodation as Europe Union countries have failed to keep up with relocation commitments.

Refugees and migrants continue to travel from Turkey to Greece — though in lower numbers — following a March agreement to fight trafficking.

Greek authorities said 183 people had arrived on Greek islands from the Turkish coast in the 24 hours from early Monday morning to early Tuesday morning. Last year, thousands were arriving each day.

On Tuesday, a wooden sailboat carrying 49 migrants arrived safely at the Greek island of Samos under escort by the Greek coast guard and European border patrol agency Frontex, the coast guard said.

There was no immediate word on the nationalities of those on board.

Greece's coast guard said Tuesday it has rescued nearly 800 refugees at sea over the past two weeks.

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Becatoros reported from Athens. Follow Kantouris at http://www.twitter.com/CostasKantouris and Becatoros at http://www.twitter.com/ElenaBec

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