Greece will hold the line says prime minister as thousands try to leave Turkey

Hopes of a new life in Europe are fading fast on the Turkish border as Greek police fire teargas and water cannons at refugees and migrants seeking to leave

Migrants from Afghanistan arrive on a dinghy on a beach near the village of Skala Sikamias, after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece, March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
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Greece is on a state of alert, deploying the military to the border with Turkey as tens of thousands of migrants and refugees seek to cross the border after Ankara opened the doors last week.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said late on Sunday that Greece was determined to protect is borders and warned people not to "attempt to enter the country illegally as they would be returned back."

Greek port authorities announced the death of one child, and hospitalisation of a second, after a migrant boat carrying 48 people overturned on Monday as it tried to reach the island of Lesbos.

Police have fired teargas and arrested dozens who sought to cross. European Union foreign ministers are set to hold an emergency meeting in the coming days to discuss the situation in Syria, where violence is spiralling since Turkey began fighting pro-Damascus forces.

Locals on the Greek border said they fear a new immigration crisis, reminiscent of 2015 and 2016 when hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants made their way from Turkey to Greece and on to Europe.

Fear of an 'invasion'

"This is an invasion," said Giorgos Karampatzakis, mayor of Marassia village, a common border crossing near the Evros River.

More than 13,000 migrants have gathered on the Turkish side of the river which runs 200 kilometres along the frontier and separates them from Greece and therefore the EU.

"This is what happened in 2015, it's repeating itself. Thousands at our borders, God help us," said a 63-year-old resident of the border village of Kastanies who gave her name only as Panayiota.

Thousands of refugees and migrants on Greek-Turkish border

Thousands of refugees and migrants on Greek-Turkish border

Back then it was Greek islands like Lesbos and Chios that bore the brunt.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised the stakes by vowing to allow refugees to travel to Europe from Nato-member Turkey as a way to pressure EU governments over the Syrian conflict across its southern border.

"What we are seeing is an endless migration crisis, what is Europe doing? What measures is it taking?" asked Yannis Siskoglou, a resident of Marassia.

"There are thousands [of migrants] at the border and there is no return route for them," he said.

Greek police have been attempting to maintain calm and contain the flow of migrants, on Sunday using water cannon on them.

Concern in Europe 

Meanwhile, North Macedonian police said a mobile police unit had found 78 migrants including six minors, crammed in a van during a routine check in the central part of the country and arrested two men, suspected for illegal migrant trafficking.

Police said 41 Pakistanis, 26 Afghans, five Syrians, four Egyptians and two Turkish nationals were found in a van after a mobile border patrol stopped the vehicle near the town of Shtip, some 90 kilometers south of the capital Skopje.
Police said the driver, 46, and another man, 36, both Macedonian nationals, have been arrested on suspicion of trafficking.

Austria too said it will stop any migrants attempting to rush the border if measures to halt them in Greece and through the Balkans fail, conservative Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said on Sunday.

"Hungary has assured us that it will protect its borders as best it can, like Croatia's," Mr Nehammer said. "Should, despite that, people reach us then they must be stopped," he said when asked what Austria would do.

Mr Nehammer's boss, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, built his career on a hard line on immigration, pledging to prevent a repeat of 2015's influx.

Growing despair on Turkey border

On the Turkish side, stuck just metres away from Greece, there is growing despair among migrants who believed they were just days away from a new life.

Some have travelled by train, others by bus or taxi, all hoping that Erdogan's warning to Europe will really mean they can eventually get to countries like Germany or Italy.

Dozens have attempted to cross the Evros River to Greece while others described mistreatment by Greek authorities, evidently frustrated.

Afghan refugee Nejip said he tried to cross into Greece on Saturday night but Greek police "took all of our belongings, money too" and he was forced to return to Turkey.

"We tried to cross again, they shot into the sky. We don't want to go anymore, the border's closed, it's not open. They're telling lies," he said.

"We went there, they hit you, they do everything. What will we do? We will die walking like this," said the 20-year-old, wearing only a jacket and hooded sweatshirt said.

Nejip was travelling with a group of around 100 people near the Evros River.

Resul, also from Afghanistan, described a similar situation as he admitted the experience had put him off wanting to go to Greece.

"They fire at you. They also take money, telephones, everything from people," he said, holding a small child on his shoulders, adding that the same thing happened to his friends.

"Now we will return to our homes by walking. We don't want to go to Greece anymore."

The situation was in stark contrast to the scene of hundreds of migrants, joyously whistling and shouting a couple of days ago after arriving in Edirne from Istanbul via train before the attempt to cross into Europe.

Hundreds of people were walking around near the border, some barefoot after Greek police took their shoes away. Others prayed outside close to the river.

Greek police on Sunday afternoon threw tear-gas, flash-bang grenades and used a water cannon in order to push back migrants attempting to illegally cross the border.

Elsewhere Greek soldiers were building fences along the river,

Many people at the border with foreign phone numbers received text messages, saying: "No one can cross the Greek borders. All those attempting illegal entry are effectively prevented from entering."

While some have opted to let go of their European dream, others said they would not give up.

Jino Ibrahimi, an Iranian migrant, said she would wait until she could go to Europe.

"I won't leave. I will wait until the border is opened because I don't have other choice," she lamented.

In the midst of all the chaos, Palestinian Ahmed Hacali was waiting to go to Greece with his cat and dog, who some people had tried to steal.

He said his wife had already crossed into Greece by boat four months ago. "We want a new life, there is no life left in Turkey," he said while petting his long-haired cat.

Although the Greek authorities have prevented nearly 10,000 people from crossing the long border, the Turkish authorities stand by, watching as people attempt to leave.

A dozen taxis and as many buses along a road parallel to the river, stopped near a dirt road where migrants continued on foot with people-smugglers elsewhere helping them to cross.

One such smuggler, who did not wish to give his name, said he had been doing the job for several years but told AFP this is "the first time I do it with authorisation."

He added: "I feel like I am doing my duty."