By Lefteris Papadimas and Bulent Usta
KASTANIES, Greece/EDIRNE, Turkey (Reuters) – Greece has repulsed nearly 35,000 migrants trying to cross onto its territory illegally since Turkey opened its border nearly a week ago, government sources said on Thursday, as it prepares to deport hundreds of others who made it through.
Thousands of migrants have made for Greece since Ankara said on Feb. 28 that it would let migrants cross its borders into Europe, reneging on a commitment to hold them on its territory under a 2016 deal with the European Union.
Ankara has accused Greek forces of shooting dead four migrants. A charge rejected by Athens, which says Turkish forces are helping the migrants to cross the border. Both sides used tear gas at the Kastanies border post on Wednesday.
Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, visited Edirne province bordering Greece on Thursday and announced the deployment of 1,000 special police to the area to halt the pushback of migrants toward its territory.
Soylu, who said on Wednesday that Turkey was preparing a case at the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of migrants, accused Greek forces of wounding 164 people and pushing back nearly 5,000 into Turkey.
Greece on Thursday banned vessels from sailing around the Aegean islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos. They are all close to the Turkish coast and a regular target for dinghies packed with migrants trying to enter the EU.
The ban exempts merchant ships and vessels of the EU’s border agency Frontex.
The Aegean Sea remained choppy on Thursday and there were no further sightings of dinghies carrying migrants.
Lesbos already hosts more than 20,000 asylum seekers, many of them living in filthy conditions in overcrowded camps.
The situation at the Kastanies border crossing was calm on Thursday. Migrants – many of whom are from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Syria and other Arab nations – huddled in tents and makeshift camps on the Turkish side of the border.
HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS
Greek border guards rebuffed nearly 7,000 attempts in the last 24 hours alone, taking the total since Feb. 29 to 34,778 and the number of arrests of those who got through to 244, the Greek government sources said.
Migrants who arrived in Greece illegally after March 1 will be transferred to the northern city of Serres and deported back to their own countries, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said late on Wednesday.
“Our aim is to return them to their countries,” he told the Athens News Agency.
Mitarachi said migrants who entered Greece prior to Jan. 1, 2019 and are living on its Aegean islands would be transferred to the mainland in the coming days.
Athens announced on March 1 that it would not accept any new asylum applications for a month following the build-up of migrants at the border. This has triggered criticism from human rights agencies.
“It’s very sad that we have seen again human beings treated as political weapons… This is unacceptable,” said Francesco Rocca, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), on a visit to the Greek-Turkish border where he struggled to hold back tears.
The U.N. migration agency, the IOM, also urged all countries to respect the migrants’ human rights.
“… international legal obligations must be upheld, in particular with respect to those who may be in need of international protection,” it said in a statement.
Greece and the EU accuse Turkey of deliberately goading the migrants to cross the border as a way of pressuring Brussels into offering more money or supporting Ankara’s geopolitical aims in the Syrian conflict.
Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and faces another influx amid increased fighting in northwest Syria, says it cannot take in any more and that the EU must do more.
President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the migrant issue with senior EU officials in Ankara on Wednesday but his spokesman said the Europeans had made “no concrete proposition” on how to resolve the crisis.
(Additional reporting by Athens and Istanbul bureaux and by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; writing by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Gareth Jones)