The United Nations migration organization said Sunday that at least 13,000 people were massed on Turkey’s land border with Greece, after Turkey officially declared its western borders were open to migrants and refugees hoping to head into the European Union.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to open his country's borders with Europe made good on a longstanding threat to let refugees into the continent. His announcement marked a dramatic departure from the current policy and an apparent attempt to pressure Europe.
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The UN’s International Organization for Migration said Sunday that by the previous evening, its staff working along the land border “had observed at least 13,000 people gathered at the formal border crossing points at Pazarkule and Ipsala and multiple informal border crossings, in groups of between several dozen and more than 3,000.”
Greek authorities fired tear gas and stun grenades through Saturday to prevent repeated attempts by a crowd of more than 4,000 people massed at the border crossing in Kastanies to cross, and fought a cat-and-mouse game with groups cutting holes in a border fence along the border to crawl through.
Greek Deputy Defense Minister Alkiviadis Stefanis told the local broadcaster Skai there were around 9,600 attempts to illegally cross Greece’s border during the night Saturday to Sunday. Stefanis said all were successfully thwarted. Previously several dozen migrants had managed to make it through.
Greek officials said they arrested 66 migrants Friday, 17 of whom were sentenced to 3.5 years in jail for entering the country illegally. All Afghans, they were the first migrants sentenced for illegal entry since 2014. On Saturday, Greece arrested another 70 people who tried to cross the land border illegally.
Others were making the short but often perilous sea crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands. At least three dinghies carrying migrants arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos Sunday morning.
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Turkey's decision to open the borders with Greece came amid a military escalation in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province that has forced hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians to flee fighting there.
The mass displacement in Idlib has raised the possibility that Turkey might come under growing international pressure to open its now sealed border with Syria and offer refuge to desperate Syrian civilians. Nearly 950,000 displaced civilians have been pushed toward the Syrian-Turkish border amid the cold winter weather.
On Saturday, Erdogan said Turkey would not stand in the way of refugees and migrants already in the country who hope to head to Europe.
“We will not close the gates to refugees,” he said. “The European Union has to keep its promises. We are not obliged to look after and feed so many refugees."
Under a 6 billion euro deal in 2016, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for financial aid after more than a million people entered Europe in 2015. It has since accused the EU of failing to honor the agreement. Erdogan has frequently threatened to “open the gates” and allow refugees and migrants to head to Europe unless more international support was provided.
Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed to this report.