Greece fears repeat of border standoff with Turkey

(Edits)

Greece fears a repeat of this year’s border standoff with Turkey may be imminent, after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu suggested migrants and refugees would soon return to the frontier as the two countries emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Due to the pandemic, the movement of migrants has slowed down. But they will definitely want to leave after the outbreak is over,” the Guardian quoted Çavuşoğlu as saying.

Çavuşoğlu made similar remarks earlier this month. “Anyone who wants to can go to Europe, we do not prevent it,” he said in comments to Turkey’s Akit TV.

Turkey announced in late February it would no longer prevent migrants from trying to reach Europe. The move was perceived as an attempt to drum up more European Union aid for the roughly four million refugees inside Turkey, and to rally European support for Turkey’s military campaign in Idlib, Syria.

Thousands of migrants subsequently clashed with Greek border forces in March as they attempted to cross. However, Turkey closed its border with Greece in mid-March as part of measures to deal with the outbreak of COVID-19.

“As the region gradually emerges from coronavirus lockdown, we are seeing a rise in tensions on all fronts,” Angelos Syrigos, professor of international law at Panteion University and an MP in the ruling centre right New Democracy party, told the Guardian.

“It is clear Turkey wants to continue weaponising migrants and refugees to extract European support for its geopolitical goals. My worry is that very soon we could see a new border crisis,” Syrigos said. 

Frontex, the European Union border agency, has reportedly also predicted that the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in Turkey will likely result in thousands of migrants and refugees attempting to cross into Greece, the Guardian said. 

After a hiatus of almost three months, Greek authorities reported several boats of refugees and migrants landing on the island of Lesbos last week. 

In recent days, there has been renewed tension over moves by Greece to extend a 12.5 kilometre-long razor wire fence along the frontier in land disputed by Turkey. Tensions between Turkey and Greece have also been growing over recent weeks due to a dispute over gas exploration rights off the coast of Cyprus, and Turkish violations of Greek airspace.

The Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported on Tuesday that the Greek government had sent an additional 14 riot police units to the border areas where most of the clashes took place in March.

Sources from the Greek Citizen Protection Ministry told Kathimerini that the move was due to the delay in the recruitment of 400 border guards because of the pandemic, and not related to recent developments at the border between Greece and Turkey or any specific information about a new wave of refugees and migrants. 

But the Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos said on Wednesday that Athens was taking measures to strengthen its borders in anticipation of a possible surge in migrants seeking to cross.

“Greece is protecting and securing its borders, particularly its land borders,” Panagiotopoulos told Skai TV. “This was demonstrated in March in the most emphatic fashion,” he said. 

In March, after Turkey had closed the border due to COVID-19, the Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu warned that Europe-bound migrants would be able to return to the Greek-Turkish land border once the pandemic receded. 

“When this epidemic is over we would not prevent whoever wants to leave,” he said.

Turkey is home to more than 4 million refugees - the highest number in the world - and has argued that that the EU has failed to provide adequate funding to host such numbers.

Turkey has also criticised Greece for suspending asylum applications and deploying violence against migrants trying to cross. A report this month by Sky News and several open-source investigators found that the bullet which killed a migrant at the border in March likely came from the Greek side of the border.

Human rights activists have accused the Greek government of exploiting the pandemic to engage in extrajudicial deportation of asylum seekers.

“We are concerned about recent reports that have reached UNHCR of informal forced returns at Greece’s borders over land and sea,” Boris Cheshirkov, the agency’s spokesperson in Athens, told the Guardian.

Meanwhile, some 37,000 asylum seekers remain held on island camps in vastly overcrowded conditions that human rights groups say have worsened as a result of restrictive measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. 

“We have seen a noticeable rise in all sorts of violence, from tent violence to sexual violence because people are forced to spend much more time in camps,” Apostolos Veizis, the medical director of Médecins Sans Frontières in Greece, told the Guardian. 

“These people are not treated as human but numbers. The situation for them is utterly inhumane.”