Greek police, migrants clash; border route access blocked

Riot police officers grab a migrant during scuffles, as migrants and refugees, who say that they seek to travel onward to northern Europe, gather outside a camp in the town of Diavata in northern Greece, Saturday. — Reuters

By Lefteris Papadimas

DIAVATA, Greece —
Greek police clashed on Saturday with groups of migrants and refugees camped in a field close to the country’s northern border hoping to cross to neighboring countries and travel onward to northern Europe, witnesses said.

Hundreds of people including children had arrived at the field next to the migrant camp of Diavata near the border with North Macedonia on Thursday and started setting up tents.

They were prompted by reports on social media of plans for an organized movement to cross Greece’s northwest land border with Albania in early April.

Riot police fired teargas at dozens of people — some with children in their arms — who threw stones and bottles as they tried to break a police cordon and reach a road leading to the border.

About 100 tents were pitched in the field which was heavily guarded by police. People refused to leave despite calls by ministers to return to accommodation centers and warnings that onward travel would be impossible.

“It’s a lie that the borders will open,” Migration Minister Dimitris Vitsas told Greek state television ERT on Friday.

Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are stuck in Greece from when Balkan countries shut their borders in 2016, closing the main passage towards northern Europe.

In Athens, a group of about 50 migrants squatted on the tracks of the capital’s main railway station shouting “Germany!” and “Open the borders.”

Several more were at the station under heavy police presence. Services from the station were suspended.

“We want to go to Thessaloniki and then to the borders,” said Amin Omar, a 27-year-old Iraqi Kurd sitting on the tracks.

“We don’t know if they are open.”

The situation revived memories of the 2015 migrant crisis, when more than one million people, mostly fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and beyond, traveled via Turkey, Greece and the Balkans towards wealthy western Europe.

Turkey drastically curtailed that exodus in 2016 under a deal with the EU. Soon after, Balkan countries shut their borders, blocking a main passage way to northern Europe and stranding tens of thousands in Greece.

Miltiadis Klapas, a Greek migration ministry official, said the latest movement towards the border was “the result of completely unfounded information that there will be a mass gathering on the borders and that they will open”.

“The borders are closed because of initiatives by other countries,” he said.

Turkish police have detained 496 people in Edirne, the province bordering EU member states Greece and Bulgaria, after migrants flocked there in the hope of crossing the border, state-owned Anadolu news agency said.

The migrants, mostly Afghan, Iranian or Pakistani, referred to themselves as the “Convoy of Hope”, it said. — Reuters