Thousands of migrants searched for ways to cross Greece‘s border with Turkey Tuesday, as Athens ramped up its diplomatic efforts to get help from the European Union to seal off its eastern land and sea frontiers.
Turkey has made good on a 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.
The action by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan triggered days of violent clashes and scenes of chaos at the border. Greece has struggled to push back the wave of migrants, with its armed forces now leading the effort.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis toured the troubled border area where he was to later receive top EU leaders including the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen later Tuesday.
“We will not be blackmailed and no one will cross the border illegally,” Mitsotakis said after being greeted by residents in border areas who clapped and chanted his first name.
The government has accused Turkey of causing a risk to is national security and has imposed emergency measures to carry our summary deportations and deny migrants the right to apply for international protection for one month.
The Greek army and navy held live fire exercises across the eastern border areas for a second day Tuesday to reinforce its message of deterrence. Frontex, the EU border protection agency, said it was finalizing plans to send additional resources to Greece, while several individual EU members. including Austria, have also offered additional support.
Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, levelled blunt criticism at Turkey for the crisis.
“The people are being used by President Erdogan as a political football, as weapons and as instruments of pressure on the European Union,” Kurz said at a press conference in Vienna. “This is no coincidence, it is organized.”
Human rights groups say the Greek response, while justified, has been heavy handed.
“Showing humanity and defending rights is the best way to defend the EU borders,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch.
At the border, Greek authorities said the main pressure 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.
Turkey announced Thursday it was easing restrictions on those wishing to cross into Europe.
The resulting movement of migrants 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.
Turkey, which 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.
Erdogan also 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. 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. Crossings to the islands slowed to a halt Tuesday due to high winds, authorities said.
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, he said, “the number of people going to the border will be expressed in millions.”