KASTANIES – Clashes between Greek riot police and migrants attempting to cross the border from Turkey erupted anew Friday as European Union foreign ministers criticized Turkey for using migrants' desperation "for political purposes.”
Greek riot police used tear gas and a water cannon in the morning to drive back people trying to cross its land border with Turkey. Turkish police fired volleys of tear gas back toward Greece in an ongoing standoff between Ankara and the EU over who should care for migrants and refugees.
Similar clashes erupted later Friday, and fires were burning on the Turkish side of the border which Greek officials said were lit by migrants. At other times the area was calm.
Thousands of refugees and other migrants have been trying to get into EU member Greece in the past week after Turkey declared that its previously guarded borders with Europe were open. Following months of threats, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that his country, which already houses more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, would no longer be Europe's gatekeeper.
His move alarmed EU countries, which are still enduring political fallout from a wave of mass migration five years ago.
Greek authorities said they have thwarted more than 38,000 attempted border crossings in the past week, and arrested 268 people — mostly Afghans and only 4% Syrians.
Erdogan has demanded that Europe shoulder more of the burden of caring for refugees. But the EU insists it is abiding by a 2016 deal in which it gave Turkey billions in refugee aid in return for keeping refugees on its soil.
Erdogan spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the phone Friday, telling her the Turkey-EU migration deal is no longer working and needs to be revised, according to his office.
EU foreign ministers, meanwhile, met in Zagreb, Croatia on Friday to discuss the Greece-Turkey border situation and events in Syria, where Turkish troops are fighting. Erdogan has cited a potential new wave of refugees from Syria as part of his reasons for opening the border.
The ministers acknowledged Turkey's role in hosting millions of migrants and refugees, but said the EU “strongly rejects Turkey's use of migratory pressure for political purposes. This situation at the EU external border is not acceptable.”
In a joint statement after the emergency meeting, the ministers expressed “full solidarity with Greece, which faces an unprecedented situation." They said the EU was determined to protect its external borders.
The EU's border agency Frontex said Friday it will deploy 100 more guards to the Greek land border. It already has 509 officers in the country. It will also provide two more boats, three aircraft, one helicopter and three more thermal imaging vans to help police Greece's land and sea borders.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the ministers urged Turkey to stop falsely telling migrants that the EU border is open.
"Encouraging refugees and migrants to attempt illegal crossing into European Union is not the way for Turkey to push for further support from the European Union,” he said.
The push to the Greek border, which began last week, has appeared organized by someone, with buses, minibuses and cars ferrying people from Istanbul.
Mohammad Omid, an Afghan who has been at the border for five days with his wife, said Turkish police told him to go to there.
“We don't know what is happening,” he said in the border town of Edirne. “We are like a ball to them. Everyone passes us to this side and the other side. I don't know what will happen to us.”
Greece has described the situation as a threat to its national security. In response it has suspended asylum applications for a month and said it will deport new arrivals without registering them. Many migrants have reported crossing into Greece, being beaten by Greek authorities and summarily forced back into Turkey.
Hashim, a 21-year-old Pakistani migrant who didn't give a surname said he managed to enter Greece and was sent back to Turkey by Greek soldiers.
“Turk army say ‘Go to the border.’ When we cross Greek border, Greece army take our money, mobile (phones) and say: ‘Go back, go back,’” he told The Associated Press. “If we don’t go back, they will beat us, they will throw our mobiles and money (in) the river. And they remove our clothes. We come here in underwear. It is not human.”
Turkey said Thursday it was deploying 1,000 special operations police to prevent Greek authorities from sending back those who managed to cross.
Erdogan's move comes amid a Syrian government offensive in the country’s northwestern Idlib province, where Turkish troops are fighting. The Russia-backed offensive has killed dozens of Turkish troops and pushed nearly one million Syrian civilians toward Turkey’s sealed border.
Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have brokered a cease-fire for Idlib that took effect at midnight.
Speaking on his return from Moscow, Erdogan signaled there would be no change in Turkey's policy.
“We don't have time to discuss with Greece whether the gates which we opened are now closed. That business is over," Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying. "Our gates are open. The refugees will go as far as they can. We are not forcing them to leave."
Erdogan also accused Greece of cruelty toward the migrants.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz accused Turkey of carrying out an "organized attack on Greece."
“A week ago we didn't have a humanitarian crisis in Greece, no crisis on the Turkish-Greek border and also none in Turkey," he told Germany's Funke media group. "This is a planned and targeted attack, directed and organized by the state. Europe must not give in to this pressure.”
Hundreds of people have also headed to Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. A young boy died this week when the dinghy he was in capsized off the Greek island of Lesbos. The Greek coast guard said Friday that 59 more people had arrived to the country's islands.
Becatoros reported from Athens, Greece. Angela Charlton in Paris, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Mystislav Chernov in Edirne, Turkey, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.