Greek authorities have fired tear gas and staged military exercises using live ammunition along the country’s eastern borders in an effort to prevent thousands of migrants including young children crossing from Turkey, deepening a stand-off between Brussels and Ankara.
The tensions arose after more than 10,000 people gathered outside a northern Greek border post without shelter, reviving fears of a repeat of the refugee crisis that rocked the EU in 2015.
Greece has warned it would do “whatever it takes” to protect its borders against migrants after Turkey decided to open its side of the border, breaking an agreement with the EU that Ankara would hold back refugees from war-torn Syria in exchange for funds.
Turkey opened the gates to Europe last week after the death of 34 Turkish soldiers in the Syrian province of Idlib. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s leader, has repeatedly called for international help to stave off a Syrian regime offensive in the rebel-held enclave that has forced an estimated 1m people to flee towards the Turkish border for safety.
Turkey is already home to more than 4m refugees from Syria and elsewhere and Mr Erdogan has warned that his country could not take any more.
Athens on Sunday announced it was temporarily suspending its asylum process in an attempt to reduce a growing numbers of arrivals by sea on the eastern Aegean Islands. The Greek coastguard reported that a child drowned when an inflatable boat carrying almost 50 asylum seekers capsized off the island of Lesbos, the main destination for people being trafficked from Turkey. All the others were rescued, a coastguard official said.
More than 800 asylum seekers landed on Lesbos and another 200 on the neighbouring islands of Chios and Samos “in the past 24 hours, a big increase on the normal daily number that makes it across in calm weather”, the same official said.
The influx of refugees landing on Lesbos has exacerbated local tensions. The island’s reception facilities are overcrowded with migrants waiting for months to have their asylum requests processed before being transferred to the Greek mainland to wait for a final decision on their application.
Hundreds of Lesbos residents last month clashed with riot police during protests against the government’s decision to build two new processing facilities.
Greece’s defence ministry on Monday said that one-day military exercises were carried out in line with Nato alliance practice and involved units firing heavy artillery weapons located on the northern land border and on the eastern Aegean Islands facing the Turkish coast.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, EU council president Charles Michel and European parliament president David Sassoli are to visit the land border on Tuesday with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister. EU interior ministers are to meet on Wednesday, while foreign affairs ministers will hold an extraordinary meeting on Friday.
Angel Merkel, the german chancellor, said yesterday: “The situation has once again taken a drastic turn for Turkey…We need a ceasefire there. We basically need a protected zone there for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are now close to the Turkish border.
“It’s understandable that that has made the situation even harder for Turkey, which already has provided a safe haven for more than 3m Syrian refugees, and at least another 1m Afghan and Iranian [refugees].”
But she added: “I understand the Turkish government and President Erdogan when he expects more from Europe. But I find it unacceptable that President Erdogan and his government doesn’t take it out on us but takes it out on refugees. That’s not the right way, as far as I’m concerned.”
Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister, said the EU would not negotiate with Turkey’s president over a refugee deal while “having a knife at its throat”.
Mr Rutte criticised Mr Erdogan for using Syrian refugees to provoke a “political struggle” where “children end up in the icy cold in that no man’s land between Turkey and Greece”.
But Mr Erdogan said on Monday that the refugee flows would continue, despite his receiving “telephone call after telephone call” from European nations asking him to close the country’s borders.
“We told them: the issue is over. The gates are open now. You are now taking your share.”