Child dies as migrants rush to cross Greek-Turkish border

By COSTAS KANTOURIS and ELENA BECATOROS, KASTANIES, Greece (AP): A child died when a boat full of migrants heading to a Greek island capsized Monday, part of a wave of thousands trying to push through Greece’s land and sea borders after Turkey declared the way was open for migrants and refugees to enter Europe.

The child’s death, reported by the Greek coast guard, was the first since Turkey announced Thursday it was easing restrictions on those wishing to cross to Europe and thousands of migrants began massing at the frontiers with Greece.

Turkey’s announcement marked a dramatic departure from its previous policy of containing refugees and migrants under an agreement with the European Union. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has demanded more support from Europe in dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war to its south.

Erdogan said Monday that Western leaders were calling him and urging him to reverse the border opening. “It’s done, the gates are open now. You will have your share of this burden now,” he said he told them.

Soon “the number of people going to the border will be expressed in millions,” he said.

Greece says it is faced with an organized Turkish campaign to push people through its borders. The government has sent army and police reinforcements to its borders and suspended all asylum applications for a month. It says it will return those entering the country illegally without registering them.

Thousands of migrants on Monday tried to find a way across the land border into Greece, which has made clear its borders will remain closed. Dozens managed to pass, either through border fences or across the river there.

At one site on the border, Greek police fired tear gas at migrants throwing stones as they tried to push through, while nearby other migrants held white flags, shouting “peace, peace,” and asking to be let in. The army announced a 24-hour live-fire exercise along the border for Monday, apparently to dissuade people from entering those areas. Greek authorities have also accused Turkish border guards of firing tear gas over the border to prevent its guards from stopping migrants.

Under a 2016 deal, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for more than 6 billion euros in financial aid after more than a million people entered Europe in 2015. Ankara has since accused the EU of failing to honor the agreement. Erdogan has frequently threatened to “open the gates” unless more international support was provided.

European countries moved to show support for Greece amid the surge at the borders. The EU’s border protection agency Frontex said it will launch a “rapid intervention,” sending extra border guards, at Athens’ request.

Top EU officials, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, were to join Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on a visit to the land border Tuesday.

“The challenge that Greece is facing right now is a European challenge,” von der Leyen said. “I acknowledge that Turkey is in a difficult situation with regards to the refugees and the migrants, but what we see now can’t be an answer or a solution.”

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Chancellor Angela Merkel offered to hold a four-way meeting with Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss the crisis in Syria, which he said was “of course the key to what’s happening at the borders.”

Seibert said the accord with Turkey should be maintained because it helps both sides. “We are certainly experiencing a situation at the moment that isn’t in line with the spirit of the accord,” he said.

He insisted money was flowing to Turkey — more than 3 billion euros released so far, along with bilateral funds — but said Berlin was willing to discuss the money issue with Ankara.

Turkey’s eased its border restrictions amid a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. That offensive has killed dozens of Turkish troops and led to a surge of nearly a million Syrian civilians fleeing toward Turkey’s sealed border.

Fighting in Idlib continued Monday, with heavy clashes between Syrian government forces and Turkish-backed fighters. The Kremlin said Erdogan and Putin would meet in Moscow on Thursday for talks on Idlib.

On Greece’s frontier, the coast guard said 48 migrants on a dinghy heading to the island of Lesbos, accompanied by a Turkish patrol vessel while in Turkish waters, deliberately overturned their boat once in Greek waters.

The coast guard said they rescued the migrants, but one boy, aged around 6 or 7 and believed to be from Syria, was pulled from the water unconscious. Efforts to revive him failed. A second child was hospitalized.

On the Turkish side, an official said its coast guard had saved people in a dinghy after it was targeted by the Greek coast guard. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said the Greek coast guard “performed maneuvers aimed at sinking” the boat, which had set off from near Bodrum, as well as firing warning shots and hitting those on board with boat hooks. There was no immediate reaction from the Greek side.

On the northeastern land border, Greek authorities said they thwarted 9,877 crossing attempts either through the fence or across the Evros River running along the frontier. Authorities arrested 68 people and charged them with illegal entry. Many of those who managed to cross were being picked up by Greek authorities after crossing and driven away in white vans.

Therose Ngonda, a 40-year-old from Cameroon, made it into Greece by wading across the river.

Speaking in the morning, her feet still wet, she said she had been told migrants had 72 hours from Friday to leave Turkey. She got on one of dozens of buses and minibuses ferrying people from Istanbul to the border, among about 2,000 people, including Syrians and families with young children.

Ngonda said she was put into the river on the Turkish side of the border. “They told me ‘go that way’.”

Greek islands near the Turkish coast also saw a major increase in arrivals. The coast guard said that in the 24 hours until Monday morning, 977 people reached the islands.

On Lesbos, where most arrived, local anger boiled over, with some residents preventing people, including young children and babies, from disembarking from a dinghy in a small harbor. Elsewhere on the island, they prevented buses from taking new arrivals to Lesbos’ massively overcrowded migrant camp of Moria.

The new arrivals spent the night on the beach. Those arriving near the island’s main town of Mytilene were being taken to the port for processing.

Becatoros reported from Athens. Associated Press writer Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Andrew Wilks in Ankara, Turkey, Vaggelis Papadonis in Lesbos, Greece, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed to this report.