LARISA BROWN: Thousands of refugees pouring towards Greece is a crisis

The road to hell: Thousands of refugees pouring towards the Greek border on a false promise – only to be met with bullets and brutality – is a crisis that cannot be ignored, writes LARISA BROWN

  • Thousands of refugees have made for the EU after Turkey’s regime opened its 120mile border with Greece
  • In a panic, Greek police fired tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons, and live ammunition at the refugees
  • The Greek Government claimed the refugee crisis constituted a direct threat to its national security
  • Turkey’s decision to sent 1,000 special forces to the border to deter Greek push-back sparks war fears 

Next to a heap of rotting rubbish lies a dead puppy covered in flies. The stench is overwhelming. Oblivious, the little Syrian girl with pigtails, gold dangly earrings, and mud streaked across her forehead, picks up the bread roll she has dropped on the ground and bites into it hungrily.

It is breakfast time on the banks of the River Meric in the Turkish border town of Pazarkule which, over the past seven days, has become one of the most desperate places on earth as thousands of refugees and economic migrants – including young families with tiny babies, sick and disabled children – have congregated here.

As dawn breaks over the new frontier in Europe’s migrant crisis, a layer of mist hangs stubbornly over the sodden ground. They had arrived with hearts filled with hope that is turning to despair and anger.

The gateway to Greece – and to the European Union – is just a short walk away across a patch of no man’s land. But they can advance no further, trapped in a squalid limbo with nowhere to go.

Pictured: Asylum seekers are seen after Greek forces forced them to take their clothes off and beat them at buffer area near Evros River as they try to reach Europe from Edirne, Turkey, on March 6

Turkey’s tent city: Fears migrant camp on border with Greece might turn into a Calais-style Jungle as thousands of refugees wait for their chance to sneak into Europe 

By David Churchill for the Daily Mail

Athens said the number of attempted illegal crossings had surged to 35,000 in a week as Turkey was accused of using the migrants as pawns.

As tents were pitched at Pazarkule on the Turkish side of the border, there were fears the camp might turn into a Calais Jungle-style settlement.

Greek officials believe the Turkish authorities have bussed thousands of migrants to the shared border while encouraging them to storm it.  

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened his country’s borders, sparking the new migrant crisis.

The EU is urging Mr Erdogan to stick to a treaty signed in 2016, under which Ankara, inundated by four million refugees and migrants, received billions in aid money in return for stemming the flow of people to Europe. 

It is a week since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his country had ‘opened the doors’ to the EU.  His statement triggered an immediate mobilisation of thousands of migrants in Turkey – mainly from Syria, but also Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and African countries – who sold their few possessions to pay for a ticket to Greece.

Many made their way to crossing points dotted across the 120-mile land border with Greece, some wading or rowing across the Evros River that runs along most of its length, or tried to leave by sea routes.

Some had raced to the border having been in Turkey only a few weeks after fleeing the war-ravaged Syrian province of Idlib – the last bastion of rebel opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. 

It was, they thought, the beginning of a journey to the Promised Land, but their arrival at the border was met with chaotic, brutal scenes.

Greek police – acting as a ‘shield’ for Europe against what one Greek minister described as an ‘invasion’ – fired tear gas at them, despite the presence of children who were left struggling to breathe, their eyes streaming. As tensions spiralled, stun grenades and water cannon were deployed to keep people back – and then live ammunition. 

At least one man was killed. Others were beaten and stripped of belongings.  

It didn’t take long for the refugees and migrants to realise they’d been duped, that they were now pawns in a vicious geopolitical game. Erdogan’s cynical ‘open door’ announcement was, in part targeted at Brussels, from whom he wants billions more in aid to pay for the 3.7 million Syrian refugees his country has accommodated and contained after striking a 6bn euro deal in 2016 with the EU.

Pictured: Greek police and border units use tear gas and water cannons to disperse asylum seekers who came from Istanbul and other parts of Turkey, waiting in the region between the Kastanies Border Gate and the Pazarkule Border Gate on March 6

Pictured: By the banks of the River Meric, on the Turkish border town of Pazarkule near Greece, where tens of thousands of refugees have descended in the hope of getting into Europe – Dalya Ahmed Mahdi, 14, from Fallujah, Iraq

Pictured: Aerial photo taken from a helicopter shows migrants lining up for food at the Turkey-Greece border near Edirne, March 5. Turkey vows to seek justice for a migrant it says was killed on the border with Greece after Greek authorities fired tear gas to push back dozens of people attempting to cross over. Greece denies that anyone was killed in the clashes

Pictured: A migrant waits with his child in the buffer zone at the Turkey-Greece border, near the Pazarkule crossing gate in Edirne on March 5. Turkish officials claimed on March 4, 2020 that a migrant was killed by Greek fire on the Turkey-Greece border where thousands of migrants have massed since last week. But on the other side Greece ‘categorically’ denied claims by Turkey that it had fired live bullets against migrants on the border, with several allegedly injured and one later dying

Pictured: A migrant woman tries to talk with the Greek authorities in the buffer zone at the Turkey-Greece border, near the Pazarkule crossing gate in Edirne, Turkey, on March 5

Migrants claim they have been stripped and beaten by Greek police while others rage at Erdogan for using them like ‘toys’ by sending them to the border to ‘blackmail’ EU 

By Tim Stickings for MailOnline

Migrants in Turkey have accused Greek police of beating them and forcing them to strip off in no-man’s land on the border where thousands are trying to reach Europe – despite pleas from the EU to stop their attempts.

Turkish state-owned broadcaster TRT published photos of shirtless migrants warming themselves around a fire near the Greek border, with some displaying back scars. 

Some of the migrants claimed that Greek police were repelling them with ‘military stuff’ on what TRT described as a ‘site of violence by Greek security forces’.

Greek police have fired tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons to repel people trying to cross, but deny claims that they have wounded or killed migrants. 

Other migrants were voicing their fury at Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan after he gave them false hope of a new life in Europe by allowing them to leave Turkey, only for their path to be blocked by Greece.

Erdogan’s gambit to ‘blackmail’ Western leaders over the war in Syria has sent thousands of migrants heading to the Greek border in an effort to reach the EU, but most have so far been turned back. 

‘We don’t know what is happening. We are like toys to them,’ said one migrant, Mohammad Omid. ‘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.’

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, warned migrants that the idea of the border being open was ‘false’ and said that ‘people should not try to move there’.

That money is running out and nearly a million more Syrian civilians who’ve fled Idlib in recent months are waiting at his southern border. ‘The doors are now open. Now you [in Europe] will have to take your share of the burden,’ Erdogan declared.

He was, in effect, threatening Western countries with a new flood of migrants triggering a crisis that would far eclipse that of 2015 when Germany alone took in one million, the consequences of which began the protracted political downfall of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the rise of far-Right forces in other countries which accepted refugees.

And yesterday that threat seemed to have worked, following an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers who agreed that more cash was needed to help Turkey.

But Erdogan had another target: he also wanted Nato allies to sit up and take notice of an even more dangerous threat to stability in the region. Two days before his announcement, 34 Turkish troops had been killed in an air strike in Idlib, which is being pulverised by Russian-backed Syrian forces loyal to Assad.

As a Sunni Muslim, Erdogan is opposed to Assad’s Alawite regime and is supporting what is left of Syrian rebel forces. It may be the end game in the Syrian civil war, but the conflict between Syria and Turkey is escalating. Many Western observers now fear an all-out war – with Syria’s ally Russia as a key player.

As a Nato member, Turkey has a right to call on other members for military support and he’s determined that the U.S. and the West should no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening.  Thursday’s summit in Moscow between Erdogan and Vladimir Putin – which saw a cease-fire agreed in Idlib – is seen by many as no more than a temporary sticking plaster.

Indeed, within minutes of the ceasefire at midnight, there were reports of shelling by Assad’s forces on the towns of Marat al-Numan and al-Fatira and reports of 15 dead. On the border the situation remains perilous, too, for the estimated four to five thousand people gathered here. Yesterday water cannon were deployed by Greek police and there were reports of migrants being stripped and beaten. Some were forced into a bus by Turkish troops and taken back to Istanbul. The fear here is palpable.

Police officers of Turkey’s Special Operation stand guard along the border between Turkey and Greece to prevent push backs near Evros River in Edirne, on March 6

Pictured: Greek police and border units use tear gas and water cannon to disperse the asylum seekers, who came from Turkey, waiting in the region between the Kastanies Border Gate and the Pazarkule Border Gate on March 6

Pictured: Greek police and border units use tear gas and water cannon to disperse the asylum seekers, who came from Turkey, waiting in the region between the Kastanies Border Gate and the Pazarkule Border Gate on March 6

Ahmed, 36, and his wife and three children, tell me that four days ago they were helped by local Turkish police to cross the river by boat. They were within a few hundred metres of Greece, only for Greek police to snatch their belongings and burn them, before pushing the family back to the Turkish side. 

EU chief vows ‘We will hold the line’ as Greek police prevent 24,000 attempts to illegally enter the country following Turkey’s decision to open their European borders 

By Chris Pleasance for MailOnline 

The EU’s top official has vowed to ‘hold the line’ in support of Greece as the country revealed it had stopped 24,000 people from entering the bloc after Turkey threw open its borders. 

Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would provide ‘all the support needed’ to defend the ‘Greek external border, which is also the European border’. 

‘Those who seek to test Europe’s unity will be disappointed. We will hold the line and our unity will prevail,’ the European Commission president said. 

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz has meanwhile accused Turkey of ‘blackmail’ and launching an ‘attack’ on the EU using migrants as leverage. 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan tore up a deal to guard Europe’s borders last Friday in an effort to pressure Western leaders over the conflict in Syria.   

Greek border guards said some 24,000 people were stopped trying to cross the border from Turkey between Saturday and Monday, with tear gas fired to keep the crowds back. On Tuesday the crowds had largely moved away from official crossing points and were trying to get through by wading or sailing across the Evros/Maritsa river, which runs the entire length of the border. 

‘They took our IDs, phones, money, and burnt them. My children cried,’ he says in Arabic. 

He says he is tired, says our translator, his body aches and he has not slept for days.

Ayoub, 30, from Morocco, managed to get as far as a barbed wire fence on the Greek side but he was forced back. ‘They hit us and beat us. We will die slowly here,’ he says sorrowfully.

He moves a carton of milk closer to a small fire to warm it for a new-born baby. Ayoub flew from Morocco to Istanbul five days ago after hearing Erdogan’s message.

Not only are there people fleeing war here, but those trying to escape poverty and unrest across Asia and Africa. Turkey has become a holding zone for millions seeking a new life in Europe. 

For now they must contend with their reality. 

Around us the ground is littered with rubbish, with dirty nappies, empty cartons, prams caked in mud and, pathetically, a child’s pair of discarded tights. Two toddlers play with a plastic cake wrapper.

Suddenly we hear deafening screams. A woman is crying out ‘baba’ as she breastfeeds her sick baby. Another boy weeps on her shoulder. The woman is from the Congo and says her husband went to the ‘frontline’, by which she means the fence Greek police are guarding. He hasn’t come back, she tells me in French.

Her cries of despair have woken some of those around her who are sleeping under plastic sheets – some propped up by sticks and weighed down by stones to shield them from the cold rain.

There are no toilets, no shelter, no places to shower or get food. ‘We are being treated like animals, it is not for humanity. It is like hell,’ Fatima Mohammad Razzuk, 27 tells me. She left Idlib after her home was bombed.

We are interrupted by the little Syrian girl I’d spotted earlier as she played by the river. Her name is Mariam, she is six – and shyly she offers me a piece of bread.

A touch of humanity in a desperate place. Every tale is more heart-breaking than the last. 

The father whose wife was killed in an air strike in Idlib, leaving him with a six-month-old baby – a tiny, shivering bundle whose breath is visible in the cold morning air.

Saddest of all those I meet is 14-year-old Dalya Ahmed Mahdi who is in a wheelchair. She is only here because a stranger carried her up and then down the 3ft mound that forms the earth river bank.

Her father, Ahmed, 35, says that his family left Iraq a year ago.

Ahmed was a security guard in the heavily fortified Green Zone area, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies, in Baghdad.

One night he drove home after work and parked his car in the usual spot next to the family home where he lived with his wife, Marta Rusul, 30, and their three daughters. Suddenly Marta interrupts his story, shouting ‘Bomb in house. Bomb’. They are the only words she seems to know in English.

Ahmed continues: ‘A bomb had been stuck to the bottom of my car. We were sleeping in the middle of the night when it went off. That is why Dalya is in a wheelchair. She was crippled. 

Dalya was so shocked after the attack that she has not spoken since’. At this point, his eyes well up under the rim of the black bobble hat pulled around his face and he turns away to compose himself.

The chatty and cheerful teenage daughter they knew had gone. Now Dalya is paralysed, has epileptic fits, has to be fed through a tube and wears nappies. The family escaped to Turkey shortly afterwards, but Ahmed has struggled to find work and afford the medical care Dalya needs.

So when he heard the border to Greece – to Europe – was open, he sold all of their belongings, even his mobile phone, and paid about £63 for five bus tickets. It seems there is no going back.

‘I am going to wait until they open the [border] because my Dalya needs help. We don’t have any other option. 

‘We have to pass the border or we have no chance. If we turn back to Iraq we will probably be killed. They tried bombing my car once and they will do it again.’ 

With the Medhi family is Khamael Salman, 39. She listens attentively as I chat with Ahmed.

I notice a battered Oxford dictionary poking out of her bag and I ask if she is learning English. She takes the book out carefully and I learn that Khamael was a writer in Iraq, but was forced to leave her home and her parents, after she received death threats for reporting on women’s issues.

‘For women, it is hard in Iraq. It has become no different from Saudi Arabia. They are wearing the hijab’, she says, her own curly hair uncovered and tied back into a bun.

The most precious belongings she has are three tatty newspaper cuttings in Arabic. 

She points to her name, her byline, beaming with pride. For this talented woman on a harrowing journey to God knows where, they symbolise the last vestiges of her self-worth. And these desperate people who have made it this far may be only the start of the new migrant crisis, with those million people who have fled Idlib now massing on Turkey’s border with Syria which, for now, remains resolutely closed.

Pictured: Greek riot police amidst tear gas used by the Turkish side at the closed-off Greek-Turkish border in Orestiada

Pictured: Greek riot police amidst tear gas used by the Turkish side at the closed-off Greek-Turkish border in Orestiada

Pictured: Greek riot police amidst tear gas used by the Turkish side at the closed-off Greek-Turkish border in Orestiada

Pictured: Greek riot police amidst tear gas used by the Turkish side at the closed-off Greek-Turkish border in Orestiada

Pazarkule isn’t the only place where migrants are gathering since Erdogan’s incendiary action. On the Greek island of Lesbos, already home to several thousand migrants in the infamous Moria camp – known as the ‘worst refugee camp on earth’ – locals are taking it upon themselves to fight off the new migrant flows from Turkey.

Some 700 have arrived in less than a week, each one of them paying $500 for their place on an inflatable boat. In the port of Thermi, residents stopped migrants disembarking from a dinghy. 

The Greek government has called the situation a direct threat to national security and has stepped up aggressive patrols of the waters between the islands and the Turkish mainland.

This week a four-year-old boy became the first child victim of the new crisis. He drowned after a dinghy carrying 46 migrants capsized in one of the crossings. Those who have made it to Lesbos have compared it to ‘hell’ – the camp rife with stabbings and reports of children as young as ten trying to commit suicide.

Turkey claims that 130,000 migrants have already crossed into Greece in recent days. It is a high – and unlikely – number given Greece’s response, but it will no doubt concentrate political minds in Athens.

And in a move that will chill Europe’s leaders to the bone, the situation looks set to deteriorate after Turkey’s interior minister made a visit to the border town of Edirne on Thursday, where he announced the deployment of 1,000 Special Forces to prevent the Greek push back.

Suleyman Soylu accused Greece of ‘mistreating’ the migrants and refugees and said Turkey ‘will not allow it’.  

His words raise the prospect of Turkey, a Nato ally, and Greece, one of Europe’s member states, entering into conflict, with migrants in the crossfire.

The Greek authorities claim that up until Thursday morning, they had thwarted 34,778 attempts to cross the border. But if they think they’ve broken the resolve of those camped in Pazarkule, they can think again. They’ve sold everything for a route to a better life and they won’t let it go without a fight.

And as I leave I think of young Dalya in her wheelchair and her father desperate to get her the care she needs. What parent wouldn’t understand his desperation to help his daughter?

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