Turkey had earlier declared that it was closing down its six land and sea border crossings with Greece and Bulgaria in an effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Refugees and migrants move away from the camp of Moria in the island of Levbos after a fire broke out, on March 16, 2020.
Refugees and migrants move away from the camp of Moria in the island of Levbos after a fire broke out, on March 16, 2020. (AFP)

Police on Greece's border with Turkey used tear gas and water cannon on Wednesday to repel hundreds of migrants clustered on the Turkish side who attempted to break down a border fence and enter Greece.

The evening clashes took place near the Kastanies border crossing.

Similar clashes occurred before dawn on Wednesday, lasting for about two hours.

An estimated 2,000 migrants are still camped out on the Greek-Turkish border, weeks after Turkey declared its borders to Europe open and encouraged migrants and refugees living in the country to try crossing into European Union member Greece.

Tens of thousands of people headed to the frontier despite Greece’s insistence that its eastern border, which is also the EU’s external border, was shut. 

The move came earlier this month after warnings by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would allow millions of refugees into Europe unless the EU provided more support for refugee care in Turkey.

Erdogan had also criticised the EU for not "sharing the burden" with Turkey, which is trying to hold off another mass influx from Syria where regime forces, backed by Russian air power, are advancing into Idlib.

The European Union and world public opinion do not understand the situation of Turkey, which already hosts more than 4 million refugees, President Erdogan said.

The Turkish president noted that the EU had not fully met the requirements under the March 18, 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal and expectations on responsibility sharing remained unanswered

The EU says it is adhering to a 2016 deal with Turkey under which it provides billions of euros in funds in return for Turkey caring for close to four million refugees from neighbouring Syria.

Turkey has in recent years topped the UN list of countries hosting refugees with close to four million refugees — most of them Syrians.  Ankara has demanded greater assistance in dealing with the conflict in Syria and its humanitarian consequences.

So far, Europe has said it will consider taking 1,500 child refugees but has focused more on reinforcing Greece's borders.

Virus spread fears

On Wednesday, Turkey declared that it was closing down its six land and sea border crossings with Greece and Bulgaria in an effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. But a senior Turkish official said that the measure did not amount to an end of Ankara's policy of not preventing migrants from leaving Turkey.

The borders were sealed to people and not the transportation of goods, the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with Turkish government protocol.

The violence on the border came hours after Erdogan held a four-way video conference with the leaders of France, Germany and Britain to discuss the migrants crisis.

A statement from Erdogan’s office said the four leaders also discussed ways of resolving the Syria conflict and providing humanitarian aid in Syria's troubled Idlib province. It didn't immediately provide further details.

Tuesday's teleconference between Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was arranged after the European leaders cancelled plans to travel to Istanbul due to the coronavirus crisis.

At least four refugees have been killed as they tried to cross into Greece to reach different European Union countries. Ankara says firing by Greek forces had resulted in the deaths. Athens denies the accusations.

Greek forces have also been accused of beating and stripping refugees and migrants of their belongings if they made it across the border.

The violence at the Greek-Turkish border has added to concerns in Athens over the high number of migrants arrivals from Turkey — at a rough average of 100 per day on the Greek islands so far this year — adding to severe overcrowding at refugee camps there.

Greek authorities on Wednesday imposed movement restrictions, lasting for at least one month, at the island camps as part of public safety measures for the coronavirus pandemic.

Migrants on Lesvos and four other islands will only be allowed to visit towns on the islands in small groups and for limited periods, the Migration Affairs Ministry said. The ministry said it was also speeding up plans to build detention facilities on the islands.

No infections have been confirmed at any of the camps, though the extent of testing at those sites remains unclear.

More than 9,300 people have reached Greece — mostly arriving on the eastern islands — from Turkey so far this year, although the rate has slowed over the past week.

Source: AP