KASTANIES, Greece/EDIRNE, Turkey—Greece has repulsed nearly 35,000 immigrants trying to cross onto its territory illegally since Turkey opened its border nearly a week ago, government sources said on March 5, as it prepares to deport hundreds of others who made it through.
Thousands of immigrants have made for Greece since Ankara said on Feb. 28 that it would let immigrants cross its borders into Europe, reneging on a commitment to hold them on its territory under a 2016 deal with the European Union.
Ankara has accused Greek forces of shooting dead four immigrants, a charge rejected by Athens, which says Turkish forces are helping the immigrants to cross the border. Both sides used tear gas at the Kastanies border post on March 4.
Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, visited Edirne Province, bordering Greece, on March 4 and announced the deployment of 1,000 special police to the area to halt the pushback of migrants into its territory.
Soylu, who said on March 4 that Turkey was preparing a case at the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of immigrants, accused Greek forces of wounding 164 people and pushing nearly 5,000 back into Turkey.
Greece on March 5 banned most vessels from sailing around the Aegean islands of Chios, Lesbos, and Samos. They are all close to the Turkish coast and a regular target for dinghies packed with immigrants trying to enter the EU.
Choppy seas discouraged dinghies from making the crossing on March 4, though in the evening, a boat carrying 42 mostly Afghan immigrants reached Lesbos. The UN refugee agency handed out snacks and blankets to the group, which included about 10 children.
Lesbos already hosts more than 20,000 asylum seekers, many of them living in filthy conditions in overcrowded camps.
The situation at the Kastanies land border crossing in northern Greece was calm on March 5.
Immigrants, who include Syrians, Afghans, Pakistanis, and Africans, huddled in tents and makeshift camps on the Turkish side of the border. Others stood in line to receive food packages from aid agencies.
Greek border guards rebuffed nearly 7,000 attempts in the last 24 hours alone, taking the total since Feb. 29 to 34,778 and the number of arrests of those who got through to 244, the Greek government sources said.
Immigrants who arrived in Greece illegally after March 1 will be transferred to the northern city of Serres and deported back to their own countries, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said late on March 4.
“Our aim is to return them to their countries,” he told the Athens News Agency.
Mitarachi said immigrants who entered Greece prior to Jan. 1, 2019 and are living on its Aegean Islands would be transferred to the mainland in the coming days.
Greece and the EU accuse Turkey of deliberately goading the immigrants to cross the border as a way of pressuring Brussels into offering more money or supporting Ankara’s geopolitical aims in the Syrian conflict.
Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and faces another influx amid increased fighting in northwest Syria, says it cannot take in any more people.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the immigrant issue with senior EU officials in Ankara on March 4, but his spokesman said the Europeans had made “no concrete proposition” on how to resolve the crisis.
By Lefteris Papadimas & Bulent Usta