Greece PM rips Turkey as thousands of migrants seek entry into Europe

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Tuesday Turkey was breaching a 2016 agreement with the European Union on migration as he toured border areas with European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.

Greece says over 26,000 have been denied entry over the last 4 days

This picture taken from the Greek side of the Greece-Turkey border near Kisario, shows a migrant with her baby on Tuesday. The flow of migrants from Turkey has triggered European Union fears of a replay of the 2015 migrant emergency when Greece became the main EU entry point for a million migrants, most of them refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. (Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP via Getty Images)

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 seeking 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.

Migrants camp out at the port of Mytilene after locals block access to the Moria refugee camp, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Tuesday. (Panagiotis Balaskas/The Associated Press)

The government has said the situation is a direct threat to Greece's national security, and has imposed emergency measures to carry out summary deportations and deny new arrivals the right to apply for asylum for one month.

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.

"The Greek worries are our worries," von der Leyen said. "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." She said those at the borders had "been lured by false promises into this desperate situation."

Turkey's announcement on Feb. 26 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, the head of the Russian military's co-ordination centre in Syria, said Tuesday the claims about a humanitarian crisis in Idlib were false.

The announcement on Turkey's opening of its borders upended Ankara's previous policy of containing refugees under an agreement with the European Union, in which the EU would provide billions of euros in funding for the care of refugees within Turkey.

New EU commitments to help Greece cope

Turkey, which hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has long maintained the EU has not lived up to its side of the deal.

The resulting movement of migrants 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 countries, including Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh and Syria.

Turkey opened its borders at the weekend, allowing more migrants from Syria and beyond to cross into Greece — where facilities to receive them are already overwhelmed. Are we facing another migrant and refugee crisis in Europe? 23:24

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.

Von der Leyen said EU border protection agency Frontex would send an offshore vessel and three coastal patrol vessels, two helicopters and other aircraft, three thermovision vehicles and ad 100 border guards to the 530 it already has in Greece. The EU would also proved 700 million euros in assistance.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks during a joint news conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, in Kastanies, after they toured border areas on the ground and by air. (Giannis Papanikos/The Associated Press)

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz levelled 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," Kurz said in Vienna.

Greece response also questioned

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.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said he understood Greek authorities may need to take "decisive" and "exceptional" measures, but warned "access has to remain" for those in need of protection.

Greeks showing hostility to refugees and aid workers, says UN


1 year ago
Greeks living on the island of Lesbos have shown great compassion toward refugees in the past. says Boris Cheshirkov, a UN refugee agency spokesperson. 4:47

At the border, Greek authorities said the main pressure Tuesday had moved from the official crossing to points farther south along the border. Authorities said they thwarted an attempt by about 1,000 people overnight to make their way across the Evros wetland area, at the southern end of the border.

In the 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday morning, Greek authorities said they prevented 5,183 people from entering, and arrested 45, mostly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco and Bangladesh.

Migrants have also been trying to reach Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. A young boy died on Monday after the dinghy he was in capsized off the coast of the island of Lesbos.

Greece's coast guard said 519 people reached nine Greek islands in the 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday morning. The number was a sharp drop from the nearly 1,000 people who had arrived the previous day.

The Greek navy said it was sending a transport ship to Lesbos to temporarily house up to 400 migrants in port, following tension with local residents who have refused to allow new arrivals to reach the island's already massively overcrowded migrant camp.