ATHENS – With tension rising as Turkey increases provocations in the seas, Greece is planning to deal with what it expects will be another attempt to sent masses of refugees and migrants across the land border or especially to Greek islands.
That came after police arrested six human traffickers who are being allowed by Turkey to operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union, Turkey paid to contain those who went there fleeing war and strife in their homelands.
In a feature, The Guardian's Helena Smith wrote that the ability of the traffickers to get past the Greek Coast Guard and patrols by the EU's border agency Frontex is raising worries that more refugees and migrants will be sent.
“We have to be prepared and have set up extra camps on all the islands that will also act as quarantine areas given the risk of COVID-19,” Manos Logothetis, the Migration Ministry’s General Secretary in charge of asylum seekers’ reception told the paper.
“The weather is optimal for crossings and the concern now very real that Turkey may once again use these people as an instrument to exert pressure on Europe and Greece,” he said.
Five Greek islands near Turkey's coast are holding more than 34,000 refugees and migrants, including more than 18,000 in the notorious Moria detention camp on Lesbos where there have been frequent violence between ethnic groups and with riot police called in to quell trouble.
Recently, two boats carrying 90 men, women and children landed on the shores of Lesbos, the fifth arrival in July despite a big drop in arrivals this year because of COVID-19 and people afraid to take the risk.
That came as police in Athens arrested six alleged smugglers who were using sailboats to traffic migrants to Italy. In February a similar network, using sailing vessels to smuggle migrants willing to pay 4,000 euros ($4576.20 each to reach Italian shores, was also broken up.
On July 21, Turkey's pro-government newspaper The Daily Sabah claimed the Turkish Coast Guard, who has allowed human traffickers to send people to Greek islands, had rescued 44 migrants allegedly pushed back by the Greek Coast Guard.
That is a frequent unsubstantiated complaint by Turkey which has more than 3.5 million refugees and migrants and said the EU hasn't lived up to the deal and has held back 3 billion euros ($3.43 billion) in aid to deal with the numbers of people.
In February and March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent 10,000 migrants to the land border along the Evros River and urged them to cross into Greece but they were repelled by riot police and army units. Then COVID-19 hit.
Turkey has kept up the provocations, drilling for oil and gas off Cyprus, planning to do the same off Crete and claiming waters off Greek islands under a maritime deal with Libya unrecognized by no other country, and Erdogan converting the ancient cathedral of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople into a mosque.
The EU has been afraid to sanction him or Turkey over fears he will make good on threats to send waves of more refugees and migrants into the bloc through Greek islands or land borders.
“Greek-Turkish relations are going through one of their roughest ever periods and day after day, month after month, they are getting worse,” Pavlos Tsimas, a political commentator, told the Guardian.
“For the first time since 1996,” he said, referring to the two rivals almost coming to war over a pair of uninhabited islets in the Aegean, “a military clash is not impossible or improbable.”
Turkey also said it would hunt for energy off other Greek islands including Karpathos, Kasos and Rhodes and there are fears that the island of Kastellorizo near the Turkish coast could be seized as Greece has opted for diplomacy that has failed but has been on a military and naval alert for any potential incident that could spark shooting.
“If Turkey sends a ship to drill in Greek waters, Athens will be forced to respond,” added Tsimas. “There is a sense that Erdogan feels he has the green light to do what he wants from this White House, with many seeing a window of danger from August until late October before US elections.”
That was in reference to US President Donald Trump's cozy relationship with Erdogan, whom he praised as “a hell of a leader,” in the same authoritarian manner that the American leader is trying to bring.