EU heads on Tuesday pledged millions of euros of financial assistance to Greece to help tackle the surge of refugees from neighboring Turkey, warning against those wishing to “test Europe’s unity.”
Flying by helicopter over the Greek-Turkish border, where thousands of desperate asylum seekers have tried to break through for days, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc would provide Greece “all the support needed.”
“Those who seek to test Europe’s unity will be disappointed,” Von der Leyen said, standing alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and the heads of the European Council and European Parliament. “We will hold the line and our unity will prevail.”
Von der Leyen said that the EU would provide 700 million euros (US$782 million), half of it immediately, to help manage the situation.
In addition, the EU border agency Frontex is to deploy a rapid intervention team, including an additional 100 guards backed by coastal patrol vessels, helicopters and vehicles, she said.
“Our first priority is making sure that order is maintained at the Greek external border, which is also the European border,” Von der Leyen told journalists.
“I am fully committed to mobilizing all the necessary operational support to the Greek authorities,” she said, adding that Greece was acting as a “shield” for Europe.
More than 500 Frontex guards have been deployed, while Greece could also receive assistance with medical teams, mobile shelters, tents and blankets, she said.
Von der Leyen said that “Turkey is not an enemy,” but “people are not just means to reach a goal.”
Earlier, Mitsotakis announced that Greek border forces had averted “over 24,000 attempts at illegal entry” by land and sea, making dozens of arrests.
“Europe has not been up to the task of dealing with the migration crisis,” he said. “I hope this crisis will serve as a wake-up call for everyone to assume their responsibilities.”
The UN refugee agency has estimated that there are about 20,000 refugees massed across the 200km border with Turkey.
“This is a very rough assessment because the movement is continuous towards different sides,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Representative in Greece Stella Nanou said.
Amid claims on the Turkish side that Greek security forces are shooting near migrants, European Council President Charles Michel said that it was “crucial to act in a proportionate manner, and to show respect for human dignity and international law.”
Greece has vehemently denied the allegations.
“No shots have been fired by Greek border forces against any individuals attempting to enter Greece illegally,” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said.
Several aid groups on the Aegean island of Lesbos on Tuesday said that they were suspending work with refugees and evacuating personnel after attacks on staff.
“Once night falls, there are non-stop attacks on NGOs [non-governmental organizations], on workers, on people who are here as volunteers,” Refocus cofounder Douglas Herman said. “Most of those organizations right now have started to suspend their operations, some indefinitely.”
At the Greek border crossing of Kastanies, reporters saw soldiers boarding refugees onto military vehicles. Other unmarked vans were also picking up refugees wandering on the streets.
Thousands have arrived at the frontier since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced last week that Ankara would no longer stop them trying to enter Europe.
Athens has suspended asylum applications and Mitsotakis said it was “painfully clear” that Turkey “has systematically encouraged, and assisted tens of thousands of refugees and migrants to illegally enter Greece.”
“This is no longer a refugee problem. It is a blatant attempt by Turkey to use desperate people to promote its geopolitical agenda,” he said.
European leaders have insisted Turkey abide by a 2016 deal to stop refugee departures in exchange for 6 billion euros in assistance. Some Syrians have accused Turkish troops of pushing them across the frontier.
Von der Leyen said that she had “compassion for the migrants that have been lured through false promises into this desperate situation.”
Turkey already hosts about 4 million refugees and faces another huge influx from Syria where the regime, backed by Russian air power, is pressing a violent offensive to retake the last rebel-held province of Idlib.
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