Watching Syria, Greece Steps Up Refugee, Migrant Transfers Off Islands

Αssociated Press

An Afghan woman holds her child upon their arrival from Lesbos island to the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Monday Oct. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

With Turkey planning a military offensive in Syria against Kurds, as the United States pulled out and left them on their own after they battled ISIS, Greek officials are anxious it could create another tidal wave of refugees and migrants trying to make their way to Greek islands.

They go to Turkey as a launching point to get to Greece where they can seek asylum now that the European Union has closed its borders to them. A summer surge overwhelmed Greek islands already holding more than 28,000 in detention centers and camps.

New Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he wants Turkey to take back 10,000 deemed ineligible for sanctuary from the more than 78,000 in Greece, including in mainland camps and centers.

That would be under the terms of an essentially-suspended swap deal Turkey has with the EU that has seen only a relative handful returned and Greece planning to speed deportations as well as decisions on asylum that have taken up to two years and more, causing growing tension and frequent violence in the camps, which have turned deadly.

More than 500 asylum-seekers arrived Oct. 4 on ferries from the islands at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, and were being taken in buses to a newly setup camp in northern Greece but the expected incursion by Turkish forces into northeastern Turkey has increased concern in Greece that more refugees may try to reach the EU, continuing a recent pattern. Transfers to the mainland were expanded to include all five Greek islands in the eastern Aegean Sea with refugee camps. Most of the mainland arrivals were from the island of Lesbos where the government is struggling to reduce overcrowding at a camp.

About 13,000 people live at a site designed for 3,000. A woman was killed in a fire at the camp last month, triggering violent protests.

Greece's Migration Minister, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, said the government was planning to create smaller camps in multiple locations on the mainland.

"We are not transferring the camp overcrowding from one site to another," Koumoutsakos told private Open TV. "We will have smaller facilities spread out across the country and that will not disturb local communities and the situation will be better controlled."

In neighboring North Macedonia, 27 migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan were discovered packed in a van near the border with Greece. Police said two Macedonian nationals were arrested on trafficking changes.

Although closed since 2016, the so-called Balkan route is still active for migrants on their way to prosperous European countries. Authorities in North Macedonia say there have been 10,000 attempts by migrants to enter the country illegally in a first half of this year.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send 5.5 million refugees to Greek islands unless the EU delivers on the terms of the swap deal left undone, including giving him another 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) among other conditions.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)