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Thousands of migrants search for ways to cross Greek border with Turkey

Turkey has made good on an earlier threat to open its borders to people wishing to cross into Europe.

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Migrants cross the Maritsa river on their way to the Greek border (AP)

Migrants cross the Maritsa river on their way to the Greek border (AP)

Migrants cross the Maritsa river on their way to the Greek border (AP)

Thousands of migrants and refugees are searching for ways to cross Greece’s border with Turkey, as Athens ramped up its diplomatic efforts for help from the European Union to seal off its eastern land and sea frontiers.

Turkey has made good on a threat to open its borders for those seeking to cross into Europe.

Many seeking to enter Greece, which has made clear its border is shut, tried their luck by wading or rowing across the Evros River that runs along most of the land frontier.

Greek police detain a migrant in the Evros region
Greek police detain a migrant in the Evros region (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

The action by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan triggered days of violent clashes and scenes of chaos at the land border, while hundreds of others have headed to Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast in dinghies.

Greece has struggled to push back the wave of migrants, with its armed forces now leading the effort.

Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis toured the troubled border along with top EU officials, including European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel.

Mr Mitsotakis said Turkey was breaching a 2016 agreement with the EU on migration and “has systematically encouraged and assisted tens of thousands of refugees and migrants to illegally enter Greece. It has failed, and will continue to fail, should it continue to pursue this strategy”.

He added: “This is no longer a refugee problem. This is a blatant attempt by Turkey to use desperate people to promote its geopolitical agenda.”

The Greek government has said the situation is a direct threat to Greece’s national security, and has imposed emergency measures to carry out summary deportations and deny new arrivals the right to apply for asylum for one month.

Thousands of migrants massed at the Turkish-Greek border
Thousands of migrants have massed at the Turkish-Greek border (AP/Giannis Papanikos)

Ms von der Leyen said: “The Greek worries are our worries.

“This is not only a Greek border but it is also a European border, and I stand here today as a European at your side.”

She said those at the borders had “been lured by false promises into this desperate situation”.

Turkey’s announcement that it would not stop those wishing to cross into Europe came amid a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive into Syria’s north-western Idlib province, where Turkish troops are fighting.

The offensive has killed dozens of Turkish troops and sent nearly a million Syrian civilians toward Turkey’s sealed border.

However, Oleg Zhuravlev, the head of the Russian military’s coordination centre in Syria, said the claims about a humanitarian crisis in Idlib were false.

The announcement of Turkey’s opening of its borders upended Ankara’s previous policy of containing refugees under an agreement with the European Union, in which the EU would provide billions of euro in funding for the care of refugees within Turkey.

Turkey-Greece Migrants
Migrants walk on the road near of Ipsala border gate in Edirne, at the Turkish-Greek border (AP)

Turkey, which hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has long maintained the EU has not lived up to its side of the deal.

The resulting movement of migrants appeared well organised, with buses, minibuses and cars provided in Istanbul to ferry people to the border. The vast majority appeared to be Afghans, along with people from a wide variety of countries, including Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh and Syria.

The Greek army and navy held live fire exercises across the eastern border areas for a second day on Tuesday to reinforce a message of deterrence.

Ms von der Leyen said EU border protection agency Frontex would send an offshore vessel and three coastal patrol vessels, two helicopters and other aircraft, three thermovision vehicles and add 100 border guards to the 530 it already has in Greece. The EU would also provide 700 million euro (£607 million) in assistance.

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz levelled blunt criticism at Turkey over the crisis.

He said in Vienna: “The people are being used by President Erdogan as a political football, as weapons and as instruments of pressure on the European Union.”

Human rights groups said the Greek response, while justified, has been heavy-handed. “Showing humanity and defending rights is the best way to defend the EU borders,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said he understood Greek authorities may need to take “decisive” and “exceptional” measures, but warned access has to remain for those in need of protection.

PA