KASTANIES – Thousands of migrants and refugees searched for ways to cross Greece's border with Turkey on Tuesday, as Athens ramped up its diplomatic efforts for help from the European Union to seal off its eastern land and sea frontiers.
Turkey has made good on a threat to open its borders for those seeking to cross into Europe. Many hoping to enter Greece, which has made clear its border is shut, were trying their luck by wading or rowing across the Evros River that runs along most of the land frontier.
The action by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan triggered days of violent clashes and scenes of chaos at the land border, while hundreds of others have headed to Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast in dinghies. Greece has struggled to push back the wave of migrants, with its armed forces now leading the effort.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis toured the troubled border along with top EU officials, including European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.
Mitsotakis said Turkey was breaching a 2016 agreement with the EU on migration and "has systematically encouraged and assisted tens of thousands of refugees and migrants to illegally enter Greece. It has failed, and will continue to fail, should it continue to pursue this strategy."
“This is no longer a refugee problem. This is a blatant attempt by Turkey to use desperate people to promote its geopolitical agenda," he said.
The government has called the situation a direct threat to Greece's national security and imposed emergency measures to carry out swift deportations and freeze asylum applications for one month. Migrants have been reporting being summarily pushed back across the border into Turkey.
The Greek army and navy held live fire exercises across the eastern border areas for a second day Tuesday to reinforce the message of deterrence.
Greek authorities said they had prevented 26,532 people from entering Greece between Saturday morning and Tuesday afternoon, and arrested 218.
“This is not only a Greek border but it is also a European border, and I stand here today as a European at your side,” von der Leyen said. She said those at the borders had ”been lured by false promises into this desperate situation."
Turkey's announcement Thursday that it would not stop those wishing to cross into Europe came amid a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, where Turkish troops are fighting.
The offensive has killed dozens of Turkish troops and sent nearly a million Syrian civilians toward Turkey’s sealed border. However, Oleg Zhuravlev, head of the Russian military’s coordination center in Syria, said Tuesday the claims about a humanitarian crisis in Idlib were false.
Zhuravlev also said Turkish authorities were “herding" about 130,000 refugees who were in temporary camps near the Turkey-Syria border toward the border with Greece. “Two thirds of them aren’t Syrians, they are Afghans, Iraqis and people from African nations,” he said.
The announcement on Turkey's opening of its borders upended Ankara's previous policy of containing refugees under a 2016 agreement with the European Union, in which the EU would provide billions of euros (dollars) in funding for the care of refugees within Turkey.
Turkey, which hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has long maintained the EU has not honored the deal.
But European countries say that's not the case.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers in Paris the 2016 accord should be “respected.”
"It is respected by Europe. ... It should also be respected by Turkey, especially because the financial commitments (to Turkey) are significant,” he said.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz leveled blunt criticism at Turkey for the crisis. "The people are being used by President Erdogan as a political football, as weapons and as instruments of pressure on the European Union," he said in Vienna.
Von der Leyen said EU border protection agency Frontex would send an offshore vessel and three coastal patrol boats, two helicopters and other aircraft, three thermovision vehicles and add 100 border guards to the 530 it already has in Greece. The EU would also provide 700 million euros in assistance.
The movement of migrants has appeared well organized, with buses, minibuses and cars provided in Istanbul to ferry people to the border. The vast majority appeared to be Afghans, along with people from a wide variety of other countries, including Syrians.
Human rights groups said the Greek response, while justified, has been heavy handed. “Showing humanity and defending rights is the best way to defend the EU borders,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said he understood Greece may need to take “decisive” and “exceptional” measures, but warned that “access has to remain” for those in need of protection.
At the border, Greek authorities said they thwarted an attempt by about 1,000 people overnight to make their way across the Evros wetlands, at the southern end of the border.
People have also been trying to reach Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. Greece's coast guard said 519 people reached nine Greek islands in the 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday morning, a sharp drop from the nearly 1,000 people who arrived the previous day.
___ Becatoros reported from Athens. Derek Gatopoulos and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.
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