Greeks fear 'invasion' of migrants across Turkish border

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Greece placed its borders on maximum security footing on Sunday after hundreds of migrants used porous crossing points to enter the country from Turkey, with thousands behind them seeking entry after Ankara relaxed curbs on their movement.
Migrants walk on a road toward the Meritsa river, near Edirne in northwestern Turkey, to take a boat to attempt to enter Greece on March 1, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

KASTANIES (AFP) - Greece was on a state of alert Sunday (Mar 1) as it faced an influx of thousands of migrants seeking to cross the border from Turkey, with locals fearing a new immigration crisis.

"This is an invasion," cried Giorgos Karampatzakis, mayor of Marassia village, near the Evros River, a common crossing point on the border.

More than 13,000 migrants have gathered on the Turkish side of the river which runs 200km along the frontier and separates them from Greece and therefore the European Union.

The flow of migrants from Turkey has triggered EU fears of a re-run of the 2015 migrant emergency when Greece became the main EU entry point for one million migrants, most of them refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.

"This is what happened in 2015, it's repeating itself. Thousands at our borders, God help us," implored Panayiota, who lives in the border village of Kastanies.

Back then it was Greek islands like Lesbos and Chios that bore the brunt.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised the stakes by vowing to allow refugees to travel to Europe from NATO-member Turkey as a way to pressure EU governments over the Syrian conflict across its southern border.

"What we are seeing is an endless migration crisis, what is Europe doing? What measures is it taking?" asked Yannis Siskoglou, a resident of Marassia village near the river.

"There are thousands (of migrants) at the border and there is no return route for them," he told AFP Greek police have been attempting to maintain calm and keep the tide of migrants at bay, on Sunday using water cannon on them.

But Greek nationalists draped a huge banner at a border post, denouncing national politicians as "traitors".

Migrants pressed on with efforts to enter Greece. Some attempted to swim across rivers or duck under fences, while others dragged suitcases as they marched toward the border where large crowds of migrants waited, some wrapped in blankets or sleeping on dirt mounds.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called an emergency meeting with his foreign affairs and defence team for Sunday evening to carve out a strategy.

Greece's deputy defence minister said Sunday the country would not back down.

"We are protecting the borders of Greece and Europe with a firm hand", Alkiviadis Stefanis said in an interview in Skai TV.

Greek authorities have already boosted border patrols, calling by loudhailers for the migrants to stay on the Turkish side.

The Greek government has also set up an automatic texting system for foreign mobile phones approaching the border, sending them the message: "Greece is maximising border security. Do not try to cross borders illegally." In the previous 24 hours, Greece blocked some 10,000 people from getting across the river, a government source said Sunday.

However some people had managed to make their way in through Kastanies forest, the source added.

On the Greek islands, where a steady flow of inflatable dinghies and other crammed and unseaworthy craft arrived across the Aegean Sea in 2015, the locals have had enough.

Despite Greece's efforts, a number of boats full of migrants arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos early Sunday.

A group of local people on Lesbos managed to stop around 50 migrants, including children, from landing their boat after several hours at sea, an AFP photographer witnessed.

Shouting "Go back to Turkey", furious locals at the port of Thermi blocked the boats and hurled insults at the local representative of the UN refugees agency, while others attacked journalists and photographers, hitting them and throwing cameras into the water.

"We've got nothing against the refugees but... those who are prepared to come here must understand that this is how we will receive them now," said Despoina, a 47-year-old islander.

On the road to the overcrowded Moira camp on the island, another group of local people used chains and rocks to try to block the route of a police bus transporting migrants who arrived Sunday, the Greek news agency ANA reported.

Later, around 150 people surrounded a disused migrant reception centre before some of them set light to it.

"The anger of the people of Moria is justified," said south Lesbos mayor Taxiarchis Verros.

"Moria can't take any more arrivals."

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