Greece is stepping up preparations for a possible increase in migrants and refugees reaching the Aegean islands from Turkey, as police arrested six alleged people smugglers at the weekend.
The ability of traffickers to circumvent the vast flotilla of naval ships and coastguard patrols conducting border surveillance in the area has reinforced fears of a surge in migrants arriving at a time of dangerously deteriorating ties between the two countries.
On almost all fronts the two Nato countries are at odds. “We have to be prepared and have set up extra camps on all the islands that will also act as quarantine areas given the risk of Covid-19,” said Manos Logothetis, the migration ministry’s general secretary in charge of asylum seekers’ reception. “The weather is optimal for crossings and the concern now very real that Turkey may once again use these people as an instrument to exert pressure on Europe and Greece.”
Over the weekend two boats carrying 90 men, women and children landed on the shores of Lesbos, in the fifth such incident this month despite migratory flows dropping dramatically in 2020.
On Saturday police in Athens announced they had arrested six alleged smugglers who were using sailboats to traffic migrants from Greece to Italy. In February a similar network, using sailing vessels to smuggle migrants willing to pay €4,000 each to reach Italian shores, was also dismantled.
Relations between Ankara and Athens, and also the EU, have become increasingly strained following repeated threats by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to release hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe – prompting reinforcement of defences along Greece’s land and sea frontiers with the aid of Frontex, the EU border agency, this year.
Turkish claims over offshore gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean have raised the temperature further and are expected to be the focus of talks between Athens’ centre-right government and the visiting German foreign minister on Tuesday.
Concern over a potential surge in migratory flows comes against a backdrop of tensions that recently have been fuelled by Erdoğan’s decision to convert the former Byzantine basilica of Hagia Sophia from its near century-long status as a museum – conferred when Turkey’s avidly secularist modern-day founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ended its standing as a mosque – back into a Muslim place of prayer.
— the Guardian