ATHENS – Faced with new masses of refugees and migrants trying to get in from Turkey – which has opened its gates – Greece’s New Democracy government has suspended for a month processing asylum applications for some 100,000 in detention camps.
That includes about 42,000 on five islands near Turkey – where they had first gone fleeing war and strife in their homelands as well as economic migrants – trying to get to Greece and get sanctuary after the European Union closed its borders to them.
With Greek police and army units at the northern border with Turkey near the treacherous Evros River trying to keep thousands at bay from crossing over, hundreds more were arriving on the islands on rubber dinghies and rickety craft.
They were sent by human traffickers that Turkey had already let operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, infuriated by the deaths of dozens of Turkish soldiers in Syria, sent thousands more refugees and migrants to the Greek border.
The delays in asylum applications processing had led to rising violence over frustration with waiting up to two years or more and with island officials and residents fiercely resisting government plans to build new detention centers to sort out ineligible applicants.
Private property is being seized for that, which saw islanders rise up in confrontations with riot police that became so intense the government ordered the squads off the islands but said the plans would proceed.
Deportations to Turkey, which has taken back only about 2000 in the last four years, will also be accelerated, said government spokesman Stelios Petsas, without explaining how that could happen if Turkey refuses.
The announcement came after the end of a cabinet meeting on national security with Greece asking the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, to increase its engagement, which hasn’t worked yet.
The decisions will be communicated to the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council so that Greece can benefit from temporary measures to face an emergency, said Kathimerini in a report on the government’s response to an intensifying crisis.
Petsas said Turkey is violating its commitments from the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement – technically speaking, Greece is as well by transferring refugees and migrants from the islands to the mainland and starting to arrest border crossers.
BLOCKING THE BORDER
He said Turkey is now trafficking the refugees and migrants instead of preventing them from coming although that has happened regularly during the swap deal, with Erdogan angry that he hasn’t gotten a delayed 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) in aid from the EU.
Petsas called the migrant movement “a sudden, massive, organized and coordinated pressure from population movements in its eastern, land and sea, borders,” with the EU, not having a military, responding with tweets supporting Greece.
Charles Michel, President of the European Council which is the heads of state of the bloc’s 27 member states, tweeted: “Support for Greek efforts to protect the European borders. Closely monitoring the situation on the ground. I will be visiting the Greek-Turkish border on Tuesday (March 4) with @PrimeministerGR Mitsotakis.”
The United States State Department also backed Greece’s rights to contain its borders, despite criticism that authorities were using tear gas on those trying to cross, including women and children.
“The United States recognizes Greece’s right to enforce its laws along its borders,” a State Department official said in response to a question from Hellas Journal, a Greek-language network based in New York.
“We are aware of these reports and we are monitoring the situation closely. We urge both sides to show restraint as the situation at the Greece-Turkey border evolves,” the official, who was not named, said.
“We urge Turkey and Greece to ensure that, in seeking to address this flow of refugees and migrants, they act in a manner consistent with their obligations under international law, including international human rights law and international refugee law,” the official said.