Greece at simmering point as refugee crisis grows

Turkey has opened its border to 3.6 million displaced Syrians, causing tumult in neighbouring Greece

Refugees scuffle with riot police on the Greek island of Lesbos
Refugees scuffle with riot police on the Greek island of Lesbos
(Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)

Greek hostility is growing towards an influx of refugees from the conflict in Syria as neighbouring Turkey rejects its role as Europe’s “gatekeeper”.

This weekend, a refugee shelter on the Greek island of Lesbos burned down in a suspected arson attack and police battled with migrants at the Turkish border. “Greek police fired tear gas at crowds at the border crossing at Kastanies, who responded by throwing stones and shouting ‘open the gates’,” the BBC says.

There are reports of those who make it across being rounded up, beaten, stripped of their belongings and clothes, and returned in their underwear by police.

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The violence marks a stark change in Greek attitudes from when the refugee crisis first flared in 2015.

Then, the country was largely empathetic. On Lesbos, which sits only 3.5 miles off the coast of Turkey, a fisherman was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to save refugees crossing the Mytilini Strait in overcrowded boats.

Now, towns are forming civilian patrols to catch migrants. Journalists and aid workers have been physically attacked, after residents accused them of helping the newcomers. The 120-mile Turkey-Greece border has been the focal point of increasing violence.

What has changed?

The latest surge in the number of refugees began on 28 February, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced he would allow refugees housed in Turkey to cross into Greece, disregarding a 2016 deal with the EU in which Ankara promised to host them.

Turkey is fighting Syrian government forces and Russian warplanes at its eastern border with Syria. A million refugees are trapped on the Syrian side, fleeing the violence - but like Greece to the West, Turkey has closed this border to them.

The refugees now trying to get into Greece are the 3.6 million displaced people already in Turkey. Feeling it was shouldering an unfair humanitarian burden as the numbers of migrants increased, Ankara is trying to force the EU into increasing its support by allowing the refugees in Turkey to spill into the EU.

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What will happen next?

Erdogan will meet with the EU in Brussels today, and has already set out what he is seeking.

“We were hoping to get much more support from the international community when it comes to refugees,” Erdogan said yesterday. “We have fulfilled the obligations of the agreement we have made with the EU. However, the EU did not fulfill its commitments except for minimal contributions ... I hope we will achieve different results this time,” Erdogan said.

“Greece, I am calling on you from here, you too should open your gates and let them go,” he said. “We are looking for fair sharing of the burden.”

Greece, however, is consumed by a sense of crisis, bolstered “by wall-to-wall coverage of events on Greek national networks”, says The New York Times.

“Ordinary Greeks felt compelled to chip in” with guarding the border, the paper says. “Some of the more violent groups seemed to have been mobilised by known far-right extremists, but it was evident that the movement against migrants enjoyed broader social support in the borderlands.”

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