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.
As The Guardian reports, 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, told the Guardian:
“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 added, referring to Europe’s border and coastguard agency.
This coincidental spike in refugees from Turkey into Greece comes as tensions between two NATO member states have escalated dramatically in the last two months - Turkey has threatened to invade Greek islands, Greece has responded, and Greeks now see Turkey as the greatest threat to their existence.
However, The Guardian notes that 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 timebomb.
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.