KASTANIES: Greece struggled on Monday to stop a growing throng of migrants from crossing its border with Turkey, as the UN urged Greece to honour its commitments under international law.
Thousands of migrants are massing on the 200km border – seeking to cross into the European Union – with tired and hungry individuals crying out for help as Greek riot police and soldiers tried to seal off a frontier post.
“Open the gate,” shouted one man in English, his hands gripping the fence.
“Help us please.”
“We have children here. They have no food,” another yelled.
“We are peaceful,” he added, waving a piece of white tissue paper.
Turkey hosts around 3.6 million Syrian refugees and many Afghans, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facilitating their exit to pressure the EU to support his forces in Syria.
Greece has suspended asylum procedures in a bid to prevent people entering its territory, but the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said Athens was in the wrong.
“Neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provides any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications,” it said in a statement.
‘A European challenge’
It is not only Greek’s land border which is attracting the migrants.
Some 1,300 arrived at five Greek islands in the Aegean Sea within 24 hours of Turkey easing its restrictions.
On Lesbos, the island where most of the inflatable dinghies and other vessels have beached, police fired tear gas at protesting migrants on Monday, an AFP photographer said
Sordid conditions in the camp of Moria, one of the most overpopulated in Europe, triggered the latest clashes, with angry migrants demanding to be released.
The United Nations had contented itself on Sunday with calling for calm and urging nations to refrain from “excessive” force, after Greek police used tear gas and water cannon on the migrants, some of whom complained that they had been beaten up.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Saturday around 13,000 migrants had gathered along the Turkish-Greek border.
The European Union has been largely standing on the sidelines but on Tuesday the three leaders of the bloc’s institutions will visit the border area.
“I acknowledge that Turkey is in a difficult situation in regards to the refugees and migrants, but what we see now cannot be the answer and the solution,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, one of the three, said on Monday.
“The challenge that Greece is facing right now is a European challenge.”
The EU border protection agency Frontex said it would help Greece cope with the migrants trying to enter.
The Warsaw-based agency, on “high alert” over the expected influx, said it would ask EU members to contribute officers and equipment.
So far, despite the attempts of Greece, some migrants are still succeeding in crossing the border from Turkey.
“We want to get to Athens, after that we’ll see,” said one young Guinean who was walking with three others after they managed to smuggle themselves across the border.
A few hours later the cold and exhausted travellers were arrested by Greek soldiers – their time as free men in the European Union cut short by a dawn patrol at Sofiko village, in northeast Greece.