Turkey is gathering a high number of migrants at its western coasts and urging them to sail across the sea border to neighbouring Greece, several Greek media reported over the weekend.
They quoted high-ranking government officials in Athens as saying these migrants, who completed their 14-day quarantine due to coronavirus, have been transferred in buses from migration camps to seaside towns just opposite the Greek island of Lesvos, which is already packed with migrants and refugees.
According to the same sources, the Turkish authorities are encouraging migrants to sail across and reach Greece – which could once again cause turmoil like the one in late February, when Ankara officially decided to let thousands of migrants enter EU territory across the Greek-Turkish land border.
More than 4,000 people repeatedly attempted to cross the Evros border in north-eastern Greece and have been stopped by Greek police forces who used sound grenades and teargas.
The same sources believe that overflights that took place earlier over the islands of Mytilene and Chios are part of the same plan aiming to “distract” Greek authorities.
Migrants again ‘instrumentalised’
EURACTIV contacted the Josoor International Solidarity Movement, an NGO which operates in the region, and confirmed the transfer of migrants to coastal areas.
“The buses drove them to the coast without any officials on them, it was just two bus drivers each. The bus drivers were told by police upon leaving the camps to drop the people off on the coast so they can cross the sea. So, the people were advised to do this by the bus drivers, who had been told by police to drive them to the coast,” the NGO said in an emailed response.
The Austrian NGO emphasised that migrants are once again being used as a tool by the Turkish government.
“They do not want to cross, they are again used and instrumentalised as they have been since the end of February,” the NGO said.
Migration amid COVID-19 pandemic
Earlier, Greek officials also voiced fear that the Turkish government has a plan to send migrants infected with coronavirus to Greece and from there to the rest of Europe.
Josoor International Solidarity Movement said these people have never been tested for COVID-19. Instead, they were just quarantined for 14 days and then released.
Greece’s Deputy Minister of Immigration and Asylum, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, said that “all possible migrants [reaching Greece] will be quarantined, whether there is a plan behind these migration flows or not”.
Koumoutsakos also urged Europe to take seriously Turkey’s repeated threats, saying this is not a bluff.
“We have long pointed out that the repeated statements by the Turkish leadership about a possible ‘opening’ of the immigration gates should be taken seriously. These statements are clearly aimed at putting pressure on and blackmail Europe and have been going on for almost a year,” he added.
Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Greece, said sea arrivals to the Greek Aegean islands brought just a few dozen people in the past month, while asylum seekers are placed under a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.
“We have been concerned about the improper living conditions for some new arrivals who have been kept with limited access to showers and toilets, in some cases for days at a beach on northern Lesvos with little shelter from the elements,” he said.
He added that adequate places are needed for the 14-day quarantine on the islands and at the Evros land border and that the UN agency is prepared to support the authorities in identifying them.
“Greece has a legitimate obligation to manage its borders and irregular movements while allowing access to asylum, which is a fundamental human right,. New arrivals can be received, screened, and quarantined in humane conditions while respecting refugee protection standards,” he concluded.