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Mohammed Harun Arsalai, Arash Yousufi and Qusay Noor

Greek forces 'violently push back' refugees as Turkey uses them as 'pawns of foreign policy'

Riot police detain a young refugee near the Moria camp on March 2 [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 March, 2020

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Chaotic scenes of families choking over plumes of tear gas, and grizzly images of the death of one Syrian refugee have brought the plight of refugees back into international spotlight.
The Greek island of Lesbos was once again the scene of violence on Monday as videos showing Greek coastguards and local anti-immigrant racists attacking overcrowded rafts of refugee families caused shock and outrage. 

At least one child has drowned after their boat capsized off the Greek coast of Lesvos, the first reported death since Turkey announced it was opening its borders with Europe last week. Another child was reportedly hospitalised in the incident. 

Chaotic scenes of families, including children choking over plumes of tear gas, and grizzly images of the death of one Syrian refugee from Aleppo, Ahmad Abu Emad – who was allegedly shot by Greek authorities – have brought the plight of refugees back into the international spotlight.

The situation at the Greece-Turkey land border crossing of Kastanies spiralled out of control after right-wing Greek Prime Minister called for an "increase in the level of deterrence" against refugees seeking to cross into the European Union.

Greek Special Forces have been deployed to the border while the Greek army has been seen lining the Evros River with barbed wire.

There have been various reports that the Greek army will be conducting live fire exercises across the entire border line with Turkey.

Turkey claims at least two refugees have died at the hands of Greek authorities, while the Greek Stelios Petsas claims that Turkey is spreading "fake news".

"Greek authorities have begun emulating Trump's 'fake news' rhetoric over videos that surfaced clearly depicting coastguards attacking a boat of screaming, terrified refugees," says Afghan refugee rights activist Suraia Sahar. 

"Turkey is claiming the moral high ground when the Turkish coastguard was caught on tape in January ramming a refugee boat. Greece is being methodical to eliminate victims of war, most of whom are racialized Muslims. Turkey is using them as pawns of foreign policy wielded as an economic threat against Europe."

Crowds of refugees exploded from a few hundred to over 4,000 in the first 24 hours after Turkish authorities opened the gates at Kastanies border crossing. Police, coastguard and other border enforcement were ordered to stand down from interfering with refugees heading to Greece this past Friday.

The numbers reached into the tens of thousands by the end of the weekend and is only growing with chartered buses full of people continuing to shuttle back and forth from refugee hot spots in various Turkish cities, including Istanbul's Fatih district.

Thousands have been stuck in a buffer zone between the two countries over the weekend.

On one side they are getting tear gassed by the Greek riot police, and on the other end, the Turkish military has locked the gates after them. 

Although all attempts at passing through the European border continue to be met with volleys of tear gas and military patrols by Greek authorities, large numbers of people have been able to cross into the EU. 

Turkey is using them as pawns of foreign policy wielded as an economic threat against Europe

The call to open Turkey's borders to the EU comes amid heightened tensions and military escalation in Syria, where 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in the Idlib province.

Read also: Syria Weekly: Turkey retaliation blocks regime's advance in Idlib

For Syrians fleeing Idlib, there's nowhere left to run
Read also: For Syrians fleeing Idlib,
there's nowhere left to run

Turkey responded militarily with a barrage of attacks over the past several days by attacking Hezbollah, Iranian militias and Assad regime fighters across the province, including an alleged regime chemical weapons factory used to create barrel bombs. 

Iranian media announced defeats in southern Idlib frontlines while also revealing the presence of Iranian proxy Afghan Shia militia, the Fatemiyoun Brigade and the Pakistani Shia militia Zaynabiyoun Brigades, announcing the funeral of 21 fighters to be held in Iran on March 6. 

A video posted to social media after the deaths of the 33 Turkish soldiers showed Iranian proxy force Lewa Zaynabiyoun fighters spitting on dead soldiers and speaking in Urdu. 

Turkey has since stopped or considerably drawn back, with Assad forces recapturing several districts in the Idlib province.

Syrians fed up with the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding and the lack of international action to intervene in the brutal war in Syria are blasting Turkey’s border move as disingenuous. 

Syrians fed up with the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding and the lack of international action to intervene in the brutal war in Syria are blasting Turkey’s border move as disingenuous

"We are aware that Turkey has taken in 3.5 million refugees, but that doesn’t give them the right to use the lives of refugees as bargaining chips," says Syrian writer and researcher Yazan Al-Saadi.

Syrian activist and author Leila Al-Shami, adds, "The border with Syria is still closed by Turkey and Syrians are still trapped inside facing relentless assault by the regime and Russia. This is a stunt by Turkey designed to get the world's attention and support its action in Idlib."

According to the United Nations, 180,000 families, more than 195,000 women and more than 560,000 children – totalling to over 948,000 Syrians – have been displaced since December 1, 2019.

Around 500 people landed on Sunday morning in around 10 vessels [Getty]

The islands of Lesbos and Chios were crippled by a general strike and police violence earlier last week, as thousands of riot police – many secretly shipped from the Greek mainland – attacked protesters engaged in blockades of construction sites for newly proposed refugee detention centres. 

According to eyewitnesses, Greek riot police "shot endless vollies of tear gas" and were filmed smashing out the windows of cars presumed to be owned by protesters.

Greek riot police shot endless vollies of tear gas and were filmed smashing out the windows of cars presumed to be owned by protesters

All sectors of Greek society from left, right and in between shuttered their stores and skipped classes to come together on Lesvos Island for a 24 hour general strike that was called amid a breakdown in talks between the Mitsotakis administration and the local island government over plans to replace or modify existing camps into long term detention centres. 

Refugees and riot police clash as tensions reach boiling point on Greek Islands
Read also: Refugees and riot police clash as tensions
reach boiling point on Greek Islands

Clashes between police and protesters broke out near the town of Mantamados, where a proposed camp site would house 7,000 refugees, but function as a detention centre. There will be guards and heavy restriction for the free movement of refugees, who are already trapped on the Greek Islands, signalling another horrifying development in one of the most shameful humanitarian crises in human history.

The conditions on Moria camp have been condemned near unanimously by activists, aid workers, journalists and human rights groups as "criminal" or according to Al-Saadi "akin to torture."

Although it seems that island residents have just now reached their limits, according to Al-Saadi, the lives of refugees at Moria camp have been beyond the verge of "crisis" and more of an active – and widely participated in – catastrophe for many years. 

"I visited Moria with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors Without Borders) around Christmas of 2015 at the height of the so-called "refugee crisis," and it was already abundantly clear to me and others working in the humanitarian sector that the situation was going to explode. We’ve seen that repeatedly since then, as has just happened again now."

It was already abundantly clear to me and others working in the humanitarian sector that the situation was going to explode

The Moria camp, which hosts an estimated 20,000 or more refugees in a space built for around 3,500, is frequently the scene of inter-refugee violence, riots, sexual assaults, a total collapse in mental health support and a severely lacking medical supplies.

The camp recently shocked the world with reports of widespread suicide attempts by children who had lost the will to live.

Lesbos migrant camp suffering mental health crisis as children say they 'want to die'
Read also: Lesbos migrant camp suffering mental
health crisis as children say they 'want to die'

"The reason why Moria camp continues to be called a 'torture centre' is because politicians and policy-makers simply do not care about refugees," says Al-Saadi.

"That's how this has gone for so long and that's why Syrians and other refugees are continuing to suffer now." 

Earlier in February up to 2,000 refugees clashed with riot police as tensions have steadily increased as Greece and the EU enacts a policy of deterrence in attempts to stop refugees from coming to Europe.

Although protests took a largely humanitarian tone, calling for refugees to be "evacuated" from the squalor and indignity of Moria camp, Greek racists also came out in large numbers to demand that refugees be "expelled" from the Greek islands for "ruining the Greek way of life." 

All sides have agreed that the Greek mainland at the European Union at large have forced the Greek islanders to face an overwhelming burden that should be absorbed by the whole of Europe.

The Mitsotakis government was hoping to establish new detention centres before the warm spring weather brings an increase in numbers of refugees attempting to cross the dangerous Aegean Sea.

However it may be too late to implement plans quick enough as Turkey announced on Friday that it would no longer be stopping refugees from reaching the European Union.

Greek racists also came out in large numbers to demand that refugees be 'expelled' from the Greek islands for 'ruining the Greek way of life'

An estimated 60,000 to 75,000 asylum-seekers reached Greece from Turkey in 2019, and over 100,000 were already projected for the year 2020 – that was before the recent border opening from Turkey into Europe.

"It's shameful that the world will do nothing to protect Syrian lives in their homeland, but suddenly pays attention when refugees start reaching Europe's shores," says Al-Shami.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel today denounced Turkey's border actions, but has also called for a ceasefire in Idlib and the creation of a safe-zone along the Turkish border.


Mohammed Harun Arsalai, is a writer currently based in the Bay Area of California and cofounder of 
Documenting Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter: @harunagain

Arash Yousufi, is an international activist and independent journalist from Afghanistan, reporting from Athens, Greece. Follow him on: Facebook

Qusay Noor, is a freelance journalist from Syria currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Follow him on Twitter: @QUSAY_NOOR_

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