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Thousands of Migrants Look for Way around Shut Greek Border

March 3, 2020

KASTANIES, Greece — Thousands of migrants searched for ways to cross Greece’s land border on Tuesday, days after Turkey made good on a longtime threat to open its borders for those seeking to cross illegally into Europe.

Many of those hoping to enter Greece were trying their luck by wading or rowing across the Evros River that runs along most of the length of the Turkish frontier.

Greek authorities said the main pressure on the border Tuesday had moved from the official crossing to points farther south along the river. 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.

Top EU officials were accompanying Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis Tuesday on a tour of the area around the land border to assess the situation that Greece has described as an asymmetric threat against its national security.

Turkey announced Thursday it was easing restrictions on those wishing to cross into Europe, leading a wave of thousands of people to mass along its western frontier.

The movement appeared well organized, with buses, minibuses and cars provided in Istanbul to ferry people to the border, a roughly three to four hour drive away. The vast majority appeared to be Afghans, along with people from a wide variety of countries, including Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh and Syria.

Turkey’s announcement upended its previous policy of containing refugees and other migrants under an agreement with the European Union, in which the EU would provide billions in funding for the care of refugees within Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has long maintained the EU has not lived up to its side of the deal, and has demanded more support from Europe. He says his country is facing an imminent and dramatic new influx of refugees from the war in Syria, where growing clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops has raised alarm. However, Turkey’s border with Syria remains shut and there has been no indication he might open it.

Greek authorities said that in the 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday morning, they had prevented a total of 5,183 people from entering Greece, and arrested 45 people, mostly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco and Bangladesh.

Greece has made clear its borders are shut. It has sent military and police reinforcements to the area, which have used tear gas and water cannon to repel mass attempts by migrants to cross into the country. Authorities have also set up cordons of police and army checks on and near the border, arresting those who managed to make it through.

On Tuesday morning, two men — one from Mali and one from Afghanistan — were seen being arrested by Greek authorities shortly after crossing the border, and being loaded into a van with about 20 more people, from Somalia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Iraq.

Migrants have also been trying to reach Greece by making the short but often perilous sea crossing to 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. The other 47 people in the boat were rescued.

On Monday night, Greek authorities said they had stopped more than 24,000 attempted illegal crossings at the land border with Turkey since early Saturday, and arrested 183 people — very few of whom were Syrians.

European countries have largely backed Greece. On Monday, Erdogan said Western leaders were calling him and urging him to reverse the border opening. “It’s done, the gates are open now. You will have your share of this burden now,” he said he told them.

Soon “the number of people going to the border will be expressed in millions,” he said.

Top EU officials, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, were to join Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister who was visiting the border area Tuesday.

During his visit, Mitsotakis was briefed that Turkish authorities were busing migrants to specific areas of the border “in order to increase the pressure on the Greek border,” a government official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Greek authorities have also said Turkish authorities have fired tear gas at the Greek border and Greek forces guarding it, and have provided video footage of tear gas being fired into Greece.

By COSTAS KANTOURIS and ELENA BECATOROS Associated Press

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