Europe|Greece Sends Army to Border as Turkey Open Gates for Migrants

The military deployed troops to the northern border with Turkey, and automated text messages told migrants not to cross over. But many ignored the warnings.

Credit…Byron Smith/Getty Images

Matina Stevis-Gridneff

ORESTIADA, Greece — Greece deployed additional military forces to the country’s northern border with Turkey on Sunday to fortify the area and to repel a stream of migrants after Turkey opened the floodgates to the European Union over the weekend.

Military officials would not say how many additional troops were being deployed, but they confirmed that they were stepping up joint military and police operations along the border. Dozens of military vehicles were seen moving toward various outposts along the 120-mile-long border with Turkey.

Groups of army officers in uniform appeared on Sunday morning in the small Greek town of Orestiada, which is close to the frontier, before heading toward the border. Two army officers said they had been brought in overnight from other parts of the country.

The fortification of the border came after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey confirmed on Saturday that he was opening Turkey’s border for migrants to enter Europe, saying that his country could no longer handle the huge numbers of people fleeing the war in Syria.

Mr. Erdogan accused European leaders of failing to keep their promise to help Turkey bear the load of hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees. And he demanded European support for his military operation against a Russian and Syrian offensive in northern Syria that has displaced at least a million more Syrians who are heading toward the Turkish border. The Turkish Army also suffered significant casualties in an airstrike in northwest Syria last week.

European Union leaders have issued vague messages of support to Turkey for its loss of soldiers in Syria after airstrikes and to Greece for its migrant troubles. But the leaders had been unable to commit to a joint statement on the evolving crisis on Sunday.

Thousands of migrants languishing in Turkey made their way to the border this weekend after Mr. Erdogan said he wouldn’t stand in their way. Many dropped everything the moment they heard the border was opening and rushed by bus or taxi, fearful that they might miss the chance to get across.

The Greek government, alarmed at the unfolding migrant wave, said that it was sending a warning through mass text messages to all international phone numbers in the border area. “From the Hellenic Republic: Greece is increasing border security to level maximum,” the message said in English. “Do not attempt illegally to cross the border.”

Many migrants went ahead, nevertheless, and some succeeded. Many ended up clashing with the authorities in Greece this weekend, as riot police with batons, shields and masks tried to block their path, sometimes firing tear gas.

Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, said in a tweet on Sunday that more than 76,000 people had left Turkey for Greece — a drastically inflated number, according to ground reports from both sides of the border.

The United Nations estimated that some 15,000 people from several countries, including families with children, were on their way in Turkey to the northern land border with Greece.

Hundreds of people went over the Turkish border in the north, either through farmland or by crossing the Evros River. Nearly 500 others arrived by boat on the islands bordering Turkey in the northeastern Aegean, creating small-scale scenes that were still reminiscent of the 2015 crisis that paralyzed Europe.

The Greek government said it had thwarted nearly 10,000 crossing attempts in 24 hours and arrested 150 people over the weekend.

But dozens of migrants in small groups could be seen scattered in the region’s villages. The Greek government claimed that those attempting to cross into Greece were all single men and none were Syrians, but families and Syrians did manage to reach Greece.

One man with his wife and small children took shelter in a church, trying to warm up and regroup after the arduous crossing.

Another migrant, Kaniwar Ibrahim, a 26-year-old tailor from Kobane, Syria, said he had heard from friends that Mr. Erdogan was opening the borders to Europe, so he rushed north.

Mr. Ibrahim, his face ashen and his lips blue from the cold, was planning his next move at the train station in Orestiada with three West Africans and a few Palestinian migrants who had crossed the border with him overnight.

He had spent two terrible years in Turkey, he said, so he grabbed the chance to join his relatives, who were legally settled in Germany.

On the Turkish side of the border, where thousands were gathering and smugglers were flocking to offer rides, boats and other services, others were less fortunate, and the hazards of crossing the border were becoming clear.

One migrant died from the cold overnight, according to other migrants, and others said they were badly beaten by Greek border guards or vigilantes — a claim that the Greek government denied.

Abdul Kareem al Mir, 23, a refugee from the city of Al Salamiyah in Central Syria, reached Edirne, near the northern border with Greece, but he was already having second thoughts.

“I’ve been stuck here for three days in the rain and cold,” he said in a series of messages. “I guess the promises and statements were just a lie,” he said.

Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Istanbul, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.

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