Greek-Turkish border under refugee pressure again

Pýthio (Greece) (AFP) –


Their clothes caked with mud, a small group of refugees from Syria trudge past a Greek farmer tilling his field on a tractor. He barely pauses to look at them.

In the villages near the Evros River, the natural boundary with Turkey in northeastern Greece, such arrivals are now common.

In Pythio, retired factory worker Yiannis Kiourtidis gets a phone call at the local coffee shop.

"Here comes another bunch. They have children with them," he shouts to his fellow villagers, who are playing cards.

Refugees -- mainly people fleeing the war in Syria -- usually arrive in Greece via the Aegean Sea.

But Aegean island camps are vastly overcrowded, and a months-long wait is in store for anyone who applies for asylum there.

Since the beginning of the year, the overland route has picked up again.

Many are Syrian Kurds from Afrin, the enclave in Syria that fell to Turkish forces in March after a month of fighting.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, some 2,900 people have arrived in Evros so far this month, mostly Syrian and Iraqi families.

This is equivalent to half the estimated land arrivals recorded in all of 2017, outpacing arrivals by sea, the agency said.

"It's too early to know the causes of the increase... More time is needed to say if the flow really is shifting," says Izabella Cooper, a spokeswoman for EU border agency Frontex, which has a staff of 26 officers in the area.

- 'Will they send us back?' -

At the village, Kiourtidis, who was once an immigrant worker in Germany, swiftly loads a car with bottled water and biscuits with the help of a friend.

Rushing out, he makes contact with the 11 refugees -- six adults and five children -- at a nearby field.

"Syria, Syria," calls out the man leading the group.

Kiourtidis motions them towards him. The two villagers hand out water as the Syrian children reach for the biscuits.

Gesturing again, the group leader asks for directions to Thessaloniki, the main city in northern Greece.

While they talk, an unmarked van pulls over and two Greek policemen step out. They are armed, yet not in uniform.

The Syrians are terrified. They have heard reports of refugees being illegally rounded up and pushed back to Turkey, a practice the Greek state has officially denied.

"Are they going to send us back?" 25-year-old Ayla, who has travelled here from the Euphrates city of Abu Kamal with her husband and five-year-old daughter, asks fearfully.

The policemen assure her that this is not their intention.

"Allah be praised," Ayla says. "You have to understand, we have lost our homes, our relatives, everything," she says, adding that her family paid smugglers $1,000 (830 euros) for each member to get to Greece.

- 'Full to capacity' -

From the border area, the refugees are taken to police facilities for identification and then forwarded to reception camps in the north.

Some privately seek passage to Thessaloniki, or even Athens if they can afford it.

The camps are already filling up, and the UNHCR this week called on the government to urgently expand reception capacity to ease the strain.

"Hundreds of people are at present being held in police detention facilities," UNHCR said.

Some refugees actively seek out the police, to get themselves indoors.

Shortly after dawn, 27-year-old Ahmet from Somalia is walking on a rural road with his wife and two other relatives.

"We are trying to find the police. We've been on the road for two days," he says.

Elias Akidis, head of the police officers' union of Orestiada, near the Turkish border, says refugees are aware that camps on Greek islands are already overflowing with people, and are opting to take the land route accordingly.

"In addition, crossing the Evros River is easy at this time of year," he says.

Another senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says they can barely keep up with arrivals.

"The reception centre is full to capacity... There is a great increase in flows, but the situation is still under control," he told AFP.

Frontex's Cooper said the agency is ready to divert additional resources to the area if requested.

"Our operations are flexible and we are ready to increase our presence if necessary," she told the daily Ethnos on Sunday.