U.S., Greece call for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in east Mediterranean

By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) – The United States and Greece called on Monday for a peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the east Mediterranean as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began a two-day trip to Greece amid increased regional tension over energy resources.

NATO allies Greece and Turkey, at loggerheads on a range of issues, have agreed to resume exploratory talks over contested maritime claims following weeks of tensions.

“The United States and Greece … reaffirmed their belief that maritime delimitation issues should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law,” the United States and Greece, also NATO allies, said in a joint statement after Pompeo met his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias.

The United States also welcomed Greece’s readiness to seek maritime agreements with its neighbors in the region, they said after meeting in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki.

Tensions escalated last month after Turkey dispatched the Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel, escorted by gunboats, into a disputed area thought to be rich in energy resources, following a maritime agreement signed between Greece and Egypt.

Turkey has said the pact infringes on its own continental shelf. The agreement also overlaps with maritime zones Turkey agreed with Libya last year, decried as illegal by Greece.

Ankara recalled the Oruc Reis this month, saying it wished to give diplomacy a chance.

Pompeo has previously said the United States is “deeply concerned” about Turkish actions in the east Mediterranean.

ENERGY TIES

The United States also hopes to build up its energy ties with Greece, which seeks to become an energy hub in the Balkans and help Europe to diversify its energy resources.

Athens already imports large quantities of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG). It is developing a floating LNG storage and regasification unit off the port of Alexandroupolis, which is expected to channel gas to Bulgaria via the Interconnector Greece – Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline and from there to central Europe by early 2023.

ExxonMobil, France’s Total and Greece’s Hellenic Petroleum have set up a joint venture that will look for gas and oil off the Greek island of Crete.

The United States has also expressed interest in the privatization of the ports of Alexandroupolis and Kavala in northern Greece.

Pompeo and Greek Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis also signed on Monday a science and technology agreement. The two countries want to collaborate on artificial intelligence, cyber security, 5G and privatization of strategic infrastructure, their joint statement said.

Pompeo was due to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and to visit the Souda military base on Crete on Tuesday.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

Greece blocks 35,000 migrants, plans to deport arrivals after March 1

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)

EU pledges aid to Greece as migrants mass on border with Turkey

By Lefteris Papadimas and Alkis Konstantinidis

KASTANIES/LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – European Union officials on Tuesday promised more cash for Greece during a visit to its border with Turkey which tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have been trying for days to breach.

The officials urged Turkey to abide by a 2016 deal which requires it to keep the migrants on its soil in return for EU aid. After an upsurge in fighting in Syria last week, Ankara says it will no longer stop migrants who want to reach Europe.

Greek riot police have used tear gas against the migrants at its Kastanies border post, while the coastguard has tried to stop boats transporting migrants to Greece’s Aegean islands. A Syrian boy died on Monday after his boat capsized in the area.

“The situation at our border is not only an issue for Greece to manage, it is the responsibility of Europe as a whole,” the head of the EU’s executive Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told a news conference at Kastanies.

“We will hold the line and our unity will prevail,” she said after touring the area with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the heads of the European Council and Parliament.

Von der Leyen announced additional aid of 700 million euros to help Greece deal with the migrant crisis.

Migrants walk next to the Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece’s Kastanies, near Edirne, Turkey, March 3, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Brussels is desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2015-16 crisis, when more than a million migrants entered the EU from Turkey via the Balkans, straining European security and welfare systems and boosting support for far-right parties.

Greek troops and riot police remained on high alert along the Turkish border on Tuesday, though there were no reports of significant new clashes with the migrants.

“There were only a few attempts today (to cross the border). Let’s hope they get the message,” a machine gun-toting army officer told Reuters at the Kastanies border post.

Army jeeps patrolled the area and roads leading to the Evros river which marks the Greek-Turkish border remained shut.

GREECE, TURKEY AT LOGGERHEADS

The crisis has badly strained ties, never good, between Ankara and Athens.

Mitsotakis accused Ankara of deliberately encouraging migrants to head to the border in order to “promote its geopolitical agenda and divert attention from the situation in Syria”.

He also said these migrants were not fleeing the latest flareup of fighting in Syria’s Idlib province but were people “who have been living safely in Turkey for a long period of time”. Many speak fluent Turkish, he added.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also accused Turkey on Tuesday of using the refugees to “blackmail” Europe.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan infuriated Mitsotakis on Monday by accusing Greek border guards of killing two migrants and wounding a third, a claim denied by Athens.

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Greek forces were shooting migrants “in the back as they are running away”, but he provided no evidence.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria’s civil war and faces another possible big influx as the fighting drags on there, says it cannot take in any more.

Human Rights Watch said it had received multiple reports that Greek border guards were pushing people back into Turkey, which could violate the right to claim asylum as well as a ban on returning people to where they would be unsafe, both of which are enshrined in international law.

The mood toward migrants on Greek islands such as Lesbos – once relatively welcoming – has soured since the 2015-16 crisis amid a sense that the Athens government and the EU are not providing sufficient support.

“It used to be the island of solidarity but it seems like the locals are exhausted,” said Charlie Meyers, a U.S. aid worker on Lesbos.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas in Kastanies, Alkis Konstantinidis on Lesbos, George Georgioupoulos and Foo Yun Chee in Athens: Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Geert de Clercq in Paris; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

‘Europe is nicer’: migrants head west after Turkey opens border

By Bulent Usta and Ali Kucukgocmen

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Hundreds of migrants in Turkey started arriving on the borders with Greece and Bulgaria on Friday after a senior Turkish official said Ankara would no longer abide by a 2016 EU deal and stop refugees from reaching Europe.

Greece and Bulgaria, both European Union member states, said they were beefing up frontier controls to prevent the migrants crossing illegally. Bulgaria said it was sending 1,000 extra troops to its border with Turkey.

Reuters TV footage showed migrants walking near the Greek border, some carrying plastic bags and small children, while Greek police and border vehicles patrolled on the other side of the fence. Similar scenes unfolded at the Bulgarian border.

On the Aegean coast, Turkish broadcasters showed two dozen people, including women and children, aboard a rubber dinghy boat. They were reportedly bound for the Greek island of Lesbos.

“We heard about (Turkey’s decision) on the television,” said Afghan migrant Sahin Nebizade, 16, one of a group of migrants packed into one of three taxis that were parked on a highway on the outskirts of Istanbul.

“We’ve been living in Istanbul. We want to go to Edirne and then on to Greece,” he said before the taxis headed for the northwestern province of Edirne.

Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Moroccans were among the migrants heading towards the border crossings with Greece and Bulgaria, about 200 km (125 miles) west of Istanbul, Turkey’s pro-government Demiroren news agency said.

Hamid Muhammed, holding a young girl at the Greek border, told Reuters that Greek police were not letting him enter.

“There are many problems here (in Turkey). We want the Turkish and European governments to open this gate,” he said.

“THERE IS NO WORK HERE”

Turkey’s decision to make good on threats long issued by President Tayyip Erdogan to “open the gates” to Europe came after 33 Turkish troops were killed in an air strike by Syrian government forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region.

Some one million civilians have been displaced in Syria near Turkey since December as Russian-backed Syrian government forces seized territory from Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the nine-year war.

Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle any more. The EU said on Friday it had received no official word from Ankara that it had suspended the 2016 deal, whereby Brussels sends billions of euros in aid in return for Turkey stemming the migrant flow to Europe.

The scenes at the borders on Friday will revive memories of the 2015 migrant crisis, when more than a million people, mostly from the Middle East and Asia, trekked from Turkey across the Balkans towards western Europe, igniting furious rows between EU governments and fuelling support for far-right parties.

Syrians boarding buses for the border in Istanbul’s Fatih district complained of economic difficulties in Turkey and said they hoped to build a better life in Europe.

“There is no work here. Turkey is not nice at all, Europe is nicer,” said Muhammed Abdullah, 25, adding that he wanted to go to Germany.

(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Gareth Jones)

Germany ‘heading for epidemic’ as virus spreads faster outside China

By David Stanway and Josh Smith

SHANGHAI/SEOUL (Reuters) – Germany said on Wednesday that it was heading for a coronavirus epidemic and could no longer trace all cases, as the number of new infections inside China – the source of the outbreak – was for the first time overtaken by those elsewhere.

Asia reported hundreds of new cases, Brazil confirmed Latin America’s first infection and the new disease – COVID-19 – also hit Pakistan, Greece and Algeria. Global food conglomerate Nestle suspended all business travel until March 15.

Stock markets across the world lost $3.3 trillion of value in four days of trading, as measured by the MSCI all-country index, but on Wednesday Wall Street led something of a rebound.

U.S. health authorities, managing 59 cases so far, have said a global pandemic is likely, but President Donald Trump accused two cable TV channels that frequently criticise him of “doing everything possible to make (the coronavirus) look as bad as possible, including panicking markets”.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

While radical quarantining measures have helped to slow the rate of transmission in China, elsewhere it is accelerating.

Germany, which has around 20 cases, said it was already impossible to trace all chains of infection, and Health Minister Jens Spahn urged regional authorities, hospitals and employers to review their pandemic planning.

“Large numbers of people have had contact with the patients, and that is a big change to the 16 patients we had until now where the chain could be traced back to the origin in China,” he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also spoken on Tuesday of a nascent pandemic. “It’s not a question of ‘if’. It’s a question of ‘when’ and how many people will be infected,” said its principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat.

‘PANDEMIC’ – OR NOT?

The World Health Organization (WHO) said China had reported 411 new cases on Tuesday – against the 427 logged in 37 other countries.

However, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised diplomats in Geneva on Wednesday against speaking of a pandemic.

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralysing systems,” he said.

“It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true.”

Dr Bruce Aylward, head of a joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva:

“Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow. If you don’t think that way, you’re not going to be ready … This a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we have got to tackle super-fast to prevent a pandemic.”

Trump tweeted that he would attend a briefing on Wednesday. But the White House denied a report by the Politico outlet that it was considering appointing a “coronavirus czar”.

The WHO says the outbreak peaked in China around Feb. 2, after measures that included isolating Hubei province.

China’s National Health Commission reported 406 new infections on Wednesday, down from 508 a day earlier and bringing the total confirmed cases in mainland China to 78,064. Its death toll rose by 52 to 2,715.

The WHO said only 10 new cases were reported in China on Tuesday outside Hubei.

FEARS FOR OLYMPICS

South Korea, which with 1,261 cases has the most outside China, reported 284 new ones including a U.S. soldier, as authorities prepared to test more than 200,000 members of a Christian church at the centre of the outbreak.

Brazil reported the first case in Latin America, a source said on Wednesday – a 61-year-old who had visited Italy.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to stem the virus as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan has nearly 170 cases, besides the 691 linked to a cruise ship that was quarantined off its coast this month. Six people have died there, including four from the ship.

There have been nearly 50 deaths outside China, including 12 in Italy and 19 in Iran, according to a Reuters tally.

While Iran has reported only 139 cases, epidemiologists say the death rate of around 2% seen elsewhere suggest that the true number of cases in Iran must be many times higher, and cases linked to Iran have been reported across the Middle East.

In Europe, Italy has become a front line in the global outbreak with 322 cases. Italians or people who had recently visited Italy have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

Two hotels, one in Austria and one on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, were locked down over cases linked to Italy.

Authorities said the more than 700 guests at Tenerife’s four-star Costa Adeje Palace could leave their rooms after a day of confinement but would have to stay in the hotel for 14 days.

“It’s very scary because everyone is out, in the pool, spreading the virus,” said 45-year-old Briton Lara Pennington, fearing for her two young sons and her elderly in-laws.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html)

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Susan Heavey in Washington, Diane Bartz in Chicago, Gavin Jones, Francesca Piscioneri and Crispian Balmer in Rome, Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun and Lusha Zhang in Beijing, Kate Kelland in London, Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul, Geert De Clercq in Paris, Paresi Hafezi and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields in Geneva; Writing by Michael Perry, Nick Macfie and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Pravin Char and John Stonestreet)

Greek islanders opposed to new migrant center clash with police

ATHENS (Reuters) – Riot police on the Greek island of Lesbos fired tear gas on Wednesday to disperse hundreds of stone-throwing protesters angry over the creation of a new detention center for migrants, the latest bout of unrest over the matter.

The Athens government infuriated residents of five Aegean islands – all straddling a key route to Europe used by thousands of migrants – by announcing two weeks ago that it would expedite the construction of secured detention centers to replace open-access, severely overcrowded camps.

Local residents say they are concerned such an arrangement could become permanent.

In a second straight day of disturbances on Wednesday, local crowds tried to approach a site earmarked for a new migrant center, triggering clashes with helmeted police on a road winding through a hilly forest.

“More than 1,000 people protesting at the new facility… threw stones at police, smashing their helmets. Police were forced to use chemicals,” a police spokesman said, using a euphemism for tear gas.

At least 10 protesters and dozens of police officers were injured during the clashes before they subsided early in the evening, another police official said.

More police were deployed this week to the five affected islands to deal with the protesters. On the island of Chios on Wednesday, local people stormed into a hotel where newly arrived police officers were staying, precipitating scuffles.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of people gathered in the town of Mytilene on Lesbos as part of a general strike to protest at government plans to create the new closed migrant facility.

On Tuesday, locals used vehicles and rubbish trucks to try to block police reinforcements and heavy machinery in a port.

The Athens government says the closed centers will offer greater security and safety to both asylum seekers and local residents, and plans to build them on the islands of Samos, Kos, Leros and Chios in addition to Lesbos.

Locals say the islands are carrying a disproportionate burden from a migrant crisis that began in 2015 when more than one million people fled violence in the Middle East and beyond via Turkey, reaching Greece and then moving on to wealthier central and northern Europe, their preferred destinations.

Border closures imposed since then along the migrant corridor through the Balkans and central Europe north of Greece have left many thousands of later arrivals marooned on Greek islands near Turkey.

(Reporting by Costas Baltas and Lefteris Papadimas; Writing by Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Trump returns to U.S. as country warily eyes spread of coronavirus

By Steve Holland and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump returned to Washington on Wednesday to face increasing concerns over the coronavirus as U.S. public health officials warned Americans to prepare for a possible outbreak and financial markets remained on edge.

Trump, back from a 2-day visit to India, said on Twitter that he would meet with U.S. officials for a briefing on the coronavirus later on Wednesday and hold a news conference.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases who will brief the president, said while the virus is contained in the United States, Americans need to get ready for a potential outbreak.

As person-to-person transmissions spread in other countries outside of China, including South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran, the coronavirus is likely to spread further, he said.

“Things are stable here … and at the same time we need to be ready to do things to contain an outbreak if it were to occur, Fauci told CNN in an interview.

Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a shift, on Tuesday said the virus’ march across the globe had raised concern about community spread in the United States, even as it remained unclear if and when that might happen, or how severe it might be.

The Republican president has been largely out of Washington since Feb. 18, first visiting a string of western U.S. states before heading off to India.

During his travels, he praised U.S. health officials while publicly downplaying the possible spread of the virus and its impact on financial markets, saying he hopes it will disappear with the arrival of warmer spring weather in the United States.

Trump has been increasingly alarmed at the drop in the stock market, which he considers a key barometer of economic health.

He has repeatedly touted his administration’s decision to bar foreign travelers who had been to China within the virus’ 14-day incubation period and to funnel flights from China to specific airports for screenings.

CDC officials, who Trump said would be at the 6 p.m. (2300 GMT) White House news conference, have advised Americans to not visit China and South Korea, and to exercise caution when traveling to Japan, Italy or Iran.

The CDC is also considering expanding airport screenings to target passengers from countries that have seen a recent spike in cases such as Italy and South Korea, NBC News reported, citing the agency.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is seeking $2.5 billion from Congress to boost its virus response, but Democrats have warned that amount falls far short of what is needed.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers grilled two top Trump officials – Health Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf – about the nation’s readiness on Tuesday. House lawmakers will also hear from Fauci, Azar and other officials at a budget hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Trump’s request also included $1 billion for a vaccine, something Fauci told CNN was in development but would take at least 18 months “at best” to come to market.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Greece speeds up creation of migrant holding centers to ease tension

By Lefteris Papadimas

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece plans to accelerate the creation of detention centers on its outlying islands in the Aegean Sea after a backlash against overcrowded camps by some migrants and nearby residents.

Authorities said on Monday they would proceed with the purchase of land on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, and press ahead with plans to create holding facilities on state-owned land on Kos and Leros.

Thousands of migrants are waiting on the islands for their asylum applications to be processed, most of them in overcrowded camps known as reception centers.

Migrants on Lesbos protested last week against poor living conditions and residents of the island took to the streets demanding the reception facilities close.

“The government has decided to close today’s anarchic facilities and create controlled, closed facilities,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said in a statement.

Hundreds of thousands of people crossed into Europe from Turkey via Greece in 2015 and 2016 before a deal brokered by the European Union limited the flow. There has been a resurgence in arrivals since around September 2019.

Last year, more than 74,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece, according to the United Nations refugees agency UNHCR. Most of them arrived on Lesbos, Chios and Samos after crossing from Turkey and about 40,000 are now in effect trapped on the islands.

AID GROUPS SAY ACTION NEEDED

Aid groups have described living conditions in some of the island camps as appalling.

“We need 20,000 people to be transferred from the islands to the mainland in the next weeks and months to come,” Philippe Leclerc, UNCHR’s head in Greece, told journalists after a meeting with Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi.

Greece’s conservative New Democracy government, elected last July, has taken a tougher stance toward migration than Syriza, the leftist party that led the previous government.

The government has introduced new regulations which it says will simplify the asylum process and launched a tender for a floating fence in the Aegean which it hopes will deter migrants arriving from Turkey on rafts.

The new detention centers would house new arrivals until their asylum processes were underway, as well as others showing “delinquent behavior” or not entitled to asylum, Petsas said.

Entering and leaving the facilities would be strictly regulated and they would be closed at night, he added.

(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Greece wants floating fence to keep migrants out

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece wants to install a floating barrier in the Aegean Sea to deter migrants arriving at its islands’ shores through Turkey, government officials said on Thursday.

Greece served as the gateway to the European Union for more than one million Syrian refugees and other migrants in recent years. While an agreement with Turkey sharply reduced the number attempting the voyage since 2016, Greek islands still struggle with overcrowded camps operating far beyond their capacity.

The 2.7 kilometer long (1.68 miles) net-like barrier that Greece wants to buy will be set up in the sea off the island of Lesbos, where the overcrowded Moria camp operates.

It will rise 50 centimeters above sea level and carry light marks that will make it visible at night, a government document inviting vendors to submit offers said, adding that it was “aimed at containing the increasing inflows of migrants”.

“The invitation for floating barriers is in the right direction,” Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos told Skai Radio. “We will see what the result, what its effect as a deterrent will be in practice.”

“It will be a natural barrier. If it works like the one in Evros… it can be effective,” he said, referring to a cement and barbed-wire fence Greece set up in 2012 along its northern border with Turkey to stop a rise in migrants crossing there.

Aid groups, which have described the living conditions at migrant camps as appalling, said fences in Europe had not deterred arrivals and that Greece should focus on speeding up the processing of asylum requests instead.

“We see, in recent years, a surge in the number of barriers that are being erected but yet people continue to flee,” Ξ’oris Cheshirkov, spokesman in Greece for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, told Reuters. “Greece has to have fast procedures to ensure that people have access to asylum quickly when they need it.”

Last year, 59,726 migrants and refugees reached Greece’s shores according to the UN agency UNHCR. Nearly 80% of them arrived on Chios, Samos and Lesbos.

A defense ministry official told Reuters the floating fence would be installed at the north of Lesbos, where migrants attempt to cross over due to the short distance from Turkey.

If the 500,000 euro barrier is effective, more parts may be added and it could reach up to 15 kilometers, the official said.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou, Lefteris Papadimas and Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Peter Graff and Gareth Jones)

Police find 41 migrants alive in truck in northern Greece

Police find 41 migrants alive in truck in northern Greece
ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek police found 41 migrants, mostly Afghans, hiding in a refrigerated truck at a motorway in northern Greece on Monday, officials said.

The discovery came 10 days after 39 bodies, all believed to be Vietnamese migrants, were discovered in the back of a refrigerated truck near London. Two people have been charged in Britain and eight in Vietnam over the deaths.

The refrigeration system in the truck where the migrants were found in northern Greece had not been turned on, and none of the migrants was injured, though some asked for medical assistance, a Greek police official said.

Police had stopped the truck near the city of Xanthi for a routine check, arresting the driver and taking him and the migrants to a nearby police station for identification.

Greece is currently struggling with the biggest resurgence in arrivals of migrants and refugees since 2015, when more than a million crossed into Europe from Turkey via Greece.

Most of them are reaching Greek Aegean islands close to the Turkish coast via boats but a large number also come overland, using a river border crossing with Turkey.

Road accidents, mainly in northern Greece, involving migrants trying to cross into other countries have become more frequent in recent years. Police have arrested dozens of people believed to be involved in human trafficking so far in 2019.

About 34,000 asylum seekers and refugees are being held in overcrowded camps on the Aegean islands under conditions which human rights groups have slammed as appalling.

The conservative government that came to power in July has vowed to move up to 20,000 off the islands and deport 10,000 people who do not qualify for asylum by the end of 2020.

Arrivals of unaccompanied children have also increased. About 1,000 minors have arrived since July, the Greek labor ministry said, with the total number estimated at over 5,000.

A fifth of them are now missing, the ministry said, pledging to build more facilities and shelters for migrant children.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas and Angeliki Koutantou; Writing by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Mark Heinrich)