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Greece reinforces land border with Turkey to stem flow of migrants

The Guardian logo The Guardian 29/04/2018 Helena Smith in Athens
Migrant at the border between Greece and Turkey: Greek security forces intercept migrants near the border with Turkey. © AP Greek security forces intercept migrants near the border with Turkey.

Greece has rushed to reinforce its land border with Turkey as fears mount over a sharp rise in the number of refugees and migrants crossing the frontier.

Police patrols were augmented as local authorities said the increase in arrivals had become reminiscent of the influx of migrants on the Aegean islands close to the Turkish coast. About 2,900 people crossed the land border in April, by far surpassing the number who arrived by sea, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said. The figure represents half of the total number of crossings during the whole of 2017.

Speaking from the frontier town of Orestiada, the local mayor, Dimitris Mavrides, said: “Our reception facilities are overwhelmed and things are on the verge of spinning out of control. Far more are coming than are actually being registered.

“The government has just sent 120 extra police, but they are temporary and simply not enough. Frontex also has to intervene,” he said, referring to Europe’s border and coastguard agency.

The area’s sole reception centre has capacity to process 240 people. In the absence of accommodation, authorities are placing newcomers, including children, in inappropriate police detention facilities where access to interpreters and other services are severely restricted.

“Some of those in police detention have been held for more than three months,” UNHCR said in a statement. “Conditions are dismal … the hundreds of people kept include pregnant women, very young children and people in need of medical and psychosocial care.”

It was imperative that mobile reception units be set up to expedite the process of identification, and that unaccompanied minors should be transferred to safe shelters, the agency said.

Greece’s deputy minister for citizen protection, Nikos Toskas, said contingency plans were in place. “We are totally prepared. There is no need for panic,” the retired general said in a telephone interview. “Everything is under control.”

Fears are growing, however, that the new wave could signal the start of a summer emergency.

Most of those who have entered overland in recent months by traversing the Evros river are refugees described as mainly Kurds fleeing the Afrin region of northern Syria following Turkey’s military offensive against the enclave.

“We don’t know exactly what has caused this change, but we’re worried that as the weather improves and water levels go down, more will brave the journey because the river will be easier to cross,” said Ruben Cano, who heads the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Greece.

“We’re sending a mission to the area this week. We have relief stocks of blankets, sleeping mats and tents. The government has plans to re-open former camps and expand the capacity of those that exist but experience has told us it may not scale-up fast enough.”

The abrupt rise reflects a switch in tactics by people smugglers circumventing the controversial agreement the EU struck with Turkey in a bid to stem migration flows at the height of the crisis when more than a million people entered the bloc through Greece.

Under the deal, signed in March 2016, migrants and refugees reaching eastern Aegean islands must remain in situ until asylum requests are processed through a system that is notoriously slow, or face deportation.

The land border does not fall under the agreement and is said to be easier to traverse. “In a boat it can take as little as three minutes to cross and is far cheaper,” said Mavrides. “They are coming precisely because it is not part of the deal and because word has got out the situation on the islands is dramatic. If they get here and are processed, they are free to go anywhere on the mainland. We have four buses a day to Athens and Thessaloniki and they are full.”

Officials in Greece’s leftist-led government say privately that they are dealing with a time bomb. The EU-Turkey accord has drastically reduced the number of arrivals since the record highs of 2015, but there registrations have risen noticeably this year.

The increase has heightened tensions on the islands, which are home to roughly 15,000 of the 60,000 migrants and refugees in Greece. Clashes erupted on Lesbos this month between Greek extremists and asylum seekers protesting against their inability to move to the mainland after the country’s highest administrative court said it was illegal to impose geographic restrictions on migrants.

“Lesbos has 8,095 migrants and refugees when the corresponding number last year was 3,050,” said the north Aegean’s regional governor, Christiana Kalogirou, of the island that has borne the brunt of the influx. “The islands are like a cauldron ready to boil over.”

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