KASTANIES / LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – Hundreds of migrants crossed permeable borders from Turkey to Turkey on Sunday while thousands more gathered on the Turkish side in search of entry after Ankara relaxed the sidewalks in their movement.
Migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestinian territories arrive on a rubber dinghy near the city of Mytilene, after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the island of Lesvos, Greece, on March 1, 2020. REUTERS / Elias Marcou
At least 500 people had arrived by sea on three Greek islands near the Turkish coast within a few hours on Sunday morning. Seven ships reached Lesbos with over 300 on board, four arrived in Samos with 150 and two in Chios with a combined total of 70-80 people, a police official said.
On the northern mainland, the groups headed across a river to the Greek side at Kastanies. Reuters reporters saw groups of up to 30 people, including an Afghan mother with a five-day-old boy, on the side of a road, who had crossed the river hours earlier.
Turkey said on Thursday it would no longer prevent hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in its territory from reaching Europe, despite an agreement to do so reached with the EU in 2016. Its announcement triggered an almost instantaneous rush to the borders. which he shares with the member of the European Union Greece.
Turkey’s turning point came after an airstrike killed 33 Turkish soldiers in neighboring north-western Syria, where Ankara deployed forces to help protect its border against a new influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war.
Turkey said that the funds promised by the EU to help it manage 3.7 million Syrian refugees already in the country have been slow to arrive; Ankara had threatened several times in the past to open doors if it did not receive more support.
Tensions rose in Kastanies, on the mainland border of northeastern Greece with Turkey, on Saturday after riot police used tear gas to repel hundreds of migrants from the Turkish side seeking entry.
A Greek government source put the number of people gathered at the border on Sunday at 3,000, while the International Organization for Migration estimated the number at 13,000.
TENSE EDGE ALONG THE PETER
Some migrants threw stones and metal bars at the Greek side, as well as portable tear gas canisters, the Greek government source said. Journalists were kept one kilometer away from crossing the Greek border.
“There were 9,600 attempts to violate our borders yesterday and all have been successfully addressed,” Deputy Defense Minister Alkiviadis Stefanis told Greek television Skai.
Greece claimed that there was an orchestrated attempt on its borders and accused Turkey of actively guiding migrants.
“Not only are they not stopping them, but they are helping them,” Stefanis told Skai.
The European Union has claimed to support Greece and its neighboring Bulgaria, which also has a border with Turkey, to protect the external borders of the blockade of 27 nations.
He also expressed condolences to Turkey over the deadly airstrike and said he was ready to step up humanitarian support.
So far no migrants had attempted to enter Bulgaria from Turkey, but tensions were intensifying at the Turkish-Greek crossings “very close” to Bulgarian territory, so Sofia had strengthened her border patrols against any illegal entry, said the minister of the Defense Krasimir Karakachanov Radio.
Greece was the main gateway for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers to Europe in 2015 and 2016. There are already more than 40,000 migrants on the Aegean islands, living in severely overcrowded fields and in dirty conditions.
Riots broke out in Lesbos last week between riot police and locals protesting a plan to set up closed detention centers to house the migrant population. Locals say the islands are suffering from a disproportionate burden.
Greece has promised to prevent another massive influx of migrants. “This country is not for everyone,” Migration Minister Notis Mittarachi told Greece’s Ant1 TV.
Reuters witnesses saw small groups of people making their way through the fields outside the Greek city of Orestiada, near the mainland border, over the weekend. Four young Afghans, exhausted, sat around a small bonfire.
Later, 26-year-old Najibe Rezayi, also from Afghanistan, carried her seven-month-old daughter in her arms. “We want a place to stay, food, warmth,” he said through an interpreter as they walked through the fog in frost-covered fields.
Greek police and the army have arrested people attempting to cross the country. “They are all Afghans, not Syrians,” said an army officer. “Are these the Syrians (Turkish president Tayyip) Erdogan was talking about?”
Alkis Konstantinidis’ report on Lesbos, Lefteris Papadimas in Kastanies, Renee Maltezou in Athens; Ali Kucukgocmen in Turkey and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Bulgaria; Written by Michele Kambas; Editing by Mark Heinrich