Clashes between Greek riot police and migrants attempting to cross the border from Turkey erupted anew Friday as European Union foreign ministers took aim at what they called “Turkey’s use of migratory pressure for political purposes.”
Greek riot police used tear gas and a water cannon to drive back people trying to cross the land border from Turkey in the morning. Turkish police fired volleys of tear gas back toward Greece in an ongoing standoff between Ankara and the EU over who should care for migrants and refugees.
Later in the day, calm returned to the area and people camped out near the border appeared to be moving further away from the frontier, possibly to a makeshift camp set up nearby.
Thousands of refugees and other migrants have been trying to get into Greece through the country’s eastern land and sea borders in the past week after Turkey declared its previously guarded borders with Europe were open.
Following through after months of threats, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week his country, which already houses more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, would no longer be Europe's gatekeeper.
He has demanded Europe shoulder more of the burden of caring for refugees. But the EU insists it is abiding by a 2016 deal in which it disbursed billions of euros in refugee aid in return for Turkey keeping refugees on its soil.
Erdogan’s decision has alarmed EU countries, which are still seeing political fallout from mass migration five years ago.
EU foreign ministers met in Zagreb, Croatia on Friday to discuss the Greece-Turkey border situation and events in Syria, where Turkish troops are fighting. Erdogan has cited a potential new wave of refugees from Syria as part of his reasoning for opening the border to EU-member Greece.
The ministers acknowledged Turkey’s role in hosting millions of migrants and refugees, but said the EU “strongly rejects Turkey’s use of migratory pressure for political purposes. This situation at the EU external border is not acceptable.”
In a joint statement after the emergency meeting, the ministers expressed “full solidarity with Greece, which faces an unprecedented situation, as well as with Bulgaria, Cyprus and other Member States, which might be similarly affected.”
They said the EU was “determined” protect its external borders and that “illegal crossings will not be tolerated.”
The EU’s border agency Frontex has already announced it will deploy additional border guards to Greece.
The ministers called on the Turkish government “to relay this message and counter the dissemination of false information.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the ministers “strongly reject a situation in which migrants are flowing to the borders of Europe believing, because someone told them, that these borders are going to be open.”
“Encouraging refugees and migrants to attempt illegal crossing into European Union is not the way for Turkey to push for further support from the European Union,” he said.
The push to the Greek border, which began last week, has appeared organized, with buses, minibuses and cars ferrying people from Istanbul.
Mohammad Omid, an Afghan who had been at the border for five days with his wife, said Turkish police told him to go to there.
“We don’t know what is happening. We are like toys to them,” he said in the border town of Edirne. “We are like a ball to them. Everyone passes us to this side and the other side. I don't know what will happen to us.”
Greece has described the situation as a threat to its national security. In response it has suspended asylum applications for a month and said it will deport new arrivals without registering them. Many migrants have reported crossing into Greece, being beaten by Greek authorities and summarily forced back into Turkey.
Turkey said Thursday it was deploying 1,000 special operations police to prevent Greek authorities from sending back those who managed to cross.
Erdogan’s move came amid a Syrian government offensive in the country's northwestern Idlib province, where Turkish troops are fighting. The Russia-backed offensive has killed dozens of Turkish troops and pushed nearly a million Syrian civilians toward Turkey’s sealed border.
Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a cease-fire for Idlib that took effect at midnight.
Speaking on his return from Moscow, Erdogan signaled there would be no change in Turkey’s policy.
“We don’t have time to discuss with Greece whether the gates which we opened are now closed. That business is over,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying. “Our gates are open. The refugees will go as far as they can. We are not forcing them to leave.”
Erdogan also accused Greece of cruelty toward the migrants and told reporters he refused to attend a possible meeting in Bulgaria to discuss the migration issue. He said he did not want to appear “in the same frame” as the Greek prime minister.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz accused Turkey of carrying out an “organized attack on Greece.”
“A week ago we didn’t have a humanitarian crisis in Greece, no crisis on the Turkish-Greek border and also none in Turkey,” he said in an interview with Germany’s Funke media group published Friday. “This is a planned and targeted attack, directed and organized by the state. Europe must not give in to this pressure.”
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, speaking before the Zagreb meeting, said the EU should rally around Greece, but said it was unacceptable for Greek police to fire rubber bullets at migrants.
“We’ve got to treat people as human beings,” he said. “While I accept there are pressures on security forces and police officers on the border there because there has been panic… I think we have to act with restraint.”
Hundreds of people have also headed to Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. A young boy died this week when the dinghy he was in capsized off the island of Lesvos.
After a one-day surge in arrivals early in the week, bad weather hampered more sea crossings. The Greek coast guard said Friday that 59 people arrived to the islands the previous day. [AP]