Migrants, police clash again on Greek-Turkish border
KASTANIES, Greece— Greek authorities used tear gas and a water cannon to repulse an attempt by migrants to push through the border from Turkey Friday morning, while Turkish authorities fired volleys of tear gas onto the Greek side of the frontier.
Thousands of refugees and other migrants have been trying to get into Greece through the country’s eastern land and sea borders over the past week, after Turkey declared its previously guarded borders with Europe were open.
Turkey has said it is deploying 1,000 special forces police on its side of the border to prevent Greek authorities from pushing back migrants who manage to cross into Greece.
Many have been camping out near the border on the Turkish side, hoping to cross despite Greek insistence that its border is closed. Reporters were being kept away from the border area on the Turkish side, but saw at least one bus full of people leaving the area Friday morning. It was unclear where the bus was headed.
After months of threats, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would no longer be the gatekeeper for Europe. He has pressured Europe to shoulder more of the burden of caring for refugees, although the EU insists it is abiding by a deal in which it disbursed billions of euros for care in return for Turkey keeping the refugees on its soil.
His decision and its aftermath on the border with Greece have alarmed governments in Europe, which is still seeing political fallout from mass migration that started five years ago.
Erdogan's move to open the border came amid a Syrian government offensive in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, where Turkish troops are fighting. The Russia-backed offensive has killed dozens of Turkish troops and sent nearly a million Syrian civilians toward Turkey’s sealed border.
A cease-fire in Idlib brokered by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday went into effect at midnight. Opposition activists and a war monitor reported a complete absence of Russian and Syrian government warplanes in the skies of Idlib and a relative calm in the area. It was not clear whether the agreement would also affect the situation on the Turkish-Greek border.
Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and Erdogan had frequently threatened to open Turkey's borders to Europe. He maintains the EU has not upheld its end of a more than 6 billion-euro deal designed to stem the flow of migrants into Europe, after more than a million people entered the EU in 2015.
Greek officials have repeatedly stressed that those attempting to cross the border are not refugees from Idlib, and mostly not Syrians. The vast majority reporters have seen who managed to cross the frontier have been from Afghanistan and other countries.
The situation on the border of EU-member Greece has alarmed European countries, whose foreign ministers were holding an emergency meeting in Zagreb, Croatia, Friday to discuss Syria.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell welcomed the cease-fire. “Let’s see how it works, that is the precondition in order to increase humanitarian help for the people in Idlib,” he said.
Borrell said the EU needs to improve relations with Turkey and with Russia, adding the foreign ministers will discuss more funds for Turkey. He wouldn't go into details or say how many countries support or oppose the idea.
“Turkey is having a big burden, 4 million people, we have to understand that," Borrell said. "But at the same time we cannot accept migrants being used as a source of pressure. But Turkey is supporting a big burden that’s for sure.”
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said he opposed more aid for Turkey now, criticizing the “cynical way” Erdogan was using refugees.
“We should not react to the pressure that Turkey is exerting on us by agreeing to more money under pressure," he said.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said the situation on the borders would also be discussed at the meeting.
“We are facing a mass movement of migrants towards the borders of Greece and Europe,” he said as he arrived for the talks. “Migrants who have been living in Turkey for years. We have clear proof that this population movement has been created and orchestrated by Turkey."
Thousands of people have been camping out near the border on the Turkish side, hoping to cross despite Greek insistence that its border is closed. Reporters were being kept away from the border area on the Turkish side, but saw at least one bus full of migrants leaving the area Friday morning. It was unclear where the bus was headed.
On the Greek side of the border, authorities were using locals with better knowledge of the terrain to apprehend those who manage to cross, either by cutting holes in the border fence or by crossing the Evros river — Meric in Turkish — that runs along most of the border.
“We were born here, we live here, we work here, we know the crossings better than anyone,” said Panayiotis Ageladarakis, head of the community of the border village of Amorio.
“We sit on the crossings and they come. We arrest most of them, meaning we keep them there, we call the police and the police come and arrest them. Then it's a matter for the police, we aren't interested in where they take them,” he said.