- - Wednesday, March 4, 2020

PARIS — The Greek military and police are clashing with refugees rushing to cross the border from Turkey as islanders to the south cope with hundreds of new arrivals.

Across the continent, German politicians vow to keep borders shut even as thousands of protesters in the capital demand entry for desperate Syrians.

In France, some wonder whether refugee tent cities will pop up in front of shops and restaurants again.

“Here we go,” said Christine, who recently closed her restaurant on a city square in northern Paris that hosted hundreds of migrants a few years ago.

“It killed our business,” she said of the influx. “We never really recovered.”



European officials, worried about a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, are scrambling to contain the fallout from Turkey’s move over the weekend to open its western borders to more than 4 million refugees and migrants it has been hosting. A similar unchecked wave five years ago rocked the continent and scrambled the political landscape in Britain, Germany, Italy and countries across central Europe.

Over the past two days, European Union countries have moved to shore up their borders. The bloc also has sent its top officials to Turkey to try to resolve the escalating military clash with Russian-backed Syrian government forces. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia this week pledged to help Greece deal with the pressure of keeping out a wave of refugees.

European Union officials were in intense talks with Turkish officials Wednesday to try to ease the crisis and warned Ankara not to manipulate the situation.

“We had the opportunity to express our understanding of the difficult situation Turkey is currently facing but also stressed that the current developments at the European borders is not leading to any solution,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Ankara, The Associated Press reported.

In an escalating conflict, Syrian government forces are trying to retake the province of Idlib from Turkish-backed rebel groups and jihadi forces. Almost 1 million Syrians fled from the violence, and many headed toward the now-closed Turkish border.

The Turkish government’s announcement Friday that it would cease controlling its land and sea borders with Europe set off a wave of speculation among refugees and migrants hoping to cross into Western Europe.

Reports said WhatsApp networks were set up for migrants and local authorities chartered buses to transport hopeful migrants to the heavily fortified border with Greece.

Observers said the crush of migrants includes large numbers of Afghans and Syrians as well as refugees from other South Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, furious that NATO allies have failed to offer his country more support, has warned that Turkey cannot take more refugees. He wants European support for his efforts in Syria and for the refugees and said a 2016 deal to limit the influx in exchange for billions of dollars was insufficient.

That deal resulted in a reduction of migrants into the EU from more than 1 million in 2015 to 123,000 in 2019, according to the United Nations.

Blackmail

Mr. Erdogan’s government says Turkey is already stressed by millions of refugees from Syria’s civil war.

“We will not close those doors,” Mr. Erdogan said this week. “Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises.”

Some Europeans have called Mr. Erdogan’s latest move a kind of political extortion.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers in Paris on Wednesday that the “migratory pressure” is “being organized by President Erdogan’s regime to blackmail the European Union. The EU won’t give in to blackmail.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed sympathy for the “drastic” situation Turkey faces in Idlib.

“Regardless, I find it completely unacceptable that President Erdogan and his government are not talking to us about their unhappiness with the situation but, instead, are playing it out on the backs of refugees,” Ms. Merkel said.

Officials in Berlin have moved quickly to relay the message that — unlike in 2015, when Ms. Merkel sparked a deeply divisive national debate by opening the borders to newcomers — Germany is closed.

“There is no point in coming to Germany,” said former Christian Democrat parliamentary group leader Friedrich Merz, a possible candidate for chancellor next year. “We cannot accept you here.”

Meanwhile, German politicians worry what will happen when Ms. Merkel steps down. In Germany and other European countries, far-right parties have made steep gains over the past few years. A rise in local elections last year was linked to the refugee issue.

Even so, some Germans, including church officials, say the doors must remain open as they were in 2015. A few thousand, chanting “We have space,” took to the streets of Berlin on Tuesday to protest closed borders for refugees.

“Everyone should be on the streets protesting today. What is happening in Greece is completely unacceptable — shame on you, Europe!” one said in a post on Twitter.

A conservative Greek government in power since July says it is determined to stop the influx. On Sunday, the government suspended asylum applications for a month and repelled thousands of refugees at the border with tear gas and water cannons.

“[This] is an asymmetric threat to Greece’s eastern border, which is also Europe’s border,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said after he visited the border Tuesday with EU officials. “The illegal invasion of thousands of people takes the form of an attack on our national territory, often with people of unknown origin and unknown purposes on the front line.”

The Greek Embassy in Washington issued a statement Wednesday angrily denying Turkish reports that Greek forces had fired on migrants attempting to rush the border to enter the EU, resulting in at least one death.

“The Turkish side creates and disperses fake news targeted against Greece,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said. He “categorically denied” the “fake news report.”

But The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Greek authorities did fire tear gas and stun grenades to drive away a crowd of people attempting to cross the border from Turkey.

About 74,000 migrants arrived last year in Greece, one of a number of EU countries struggling to integrate the refugees already within their borders.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, near Turkey, 1,500 refugees and migrants arrived by sea this week, joining about 20,000 stuck there in overcrowded and unsanitary refugee camps. The government won’t allow the newcomers on the islands to leave for the mainland or any other European country.

Rahime Ewazari, 40, an ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan, has been waiting for three months on Lesbos for her asylum application to be processed. She can expect to wait for a while as Greece works its way through an enormous backlog. Ms. Ewazari said she has no other choice.

“We have a big problem in our country because there’s a lot of fighting [that targets Hazaras],” she said. “We want to go to the European Union to save our children. Even so, we can’t survive in Moria [refugee camp]. It’s like hell.”

The refugee issue has polarized the 80,000 islanders. Some welcome the newcomers while others form vigilante groups and target the refugees and those who try to help them. Riots last week forced the government to back down on its plan to build a new refugee detention center.

“We need a solution for both the islanders and the people arriving,” said Stratis Valliamos, a Lesbos fisherman who has helped save dozens of refugees from drowning on their way from Turkey in the past five years. “I understand that people are afraid. You can’t have 20,000 people living in a slum next to a city of 30,000 because among these people there are criminals, too.

“But, if there was a war here I’d do the same thing,” he said. “I’d take my kid and get in my fishing boat or on a plane and save ourselves.”

Nikolia Apostolou reported from Lesbos, Greece, and Eros Banaj in Berlin contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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