Two refugees died in the last 24 hours as Greece’s exasperation with Europe’s five year old refugee crisis nears a breaking point.
A child drowned Monday just off the coast of the Aegean island of Lesbos after a dinghy carrying about 40 people capsized.
The Greek coast guard accused their Turkish counterparts of escorting the dinghy towards Lesbos on Monday morning.
The coast guard claimed the migrants capsized the vessel deliberately in an attempt to provoke a rescue. The young child was reported to have drowned in the incident.
Later, a video surfaced on social media that appeared to show a Greek coast guard boat intimidating a dinghy full of migrants by passing close by at high speed. Crew members of the Greek boat appeared to fire warning shots and prod the inflatable with a boat hook.
A 22-year-old Syrian named Ahmed Abu Emad was also killed as he tried to cross from Turkey into Greece near the Ipsala crossing point, according to reports.
Eye witnesses said he was hit by a bullet fired by Greek forces defending the border. Greek authorities have described the allegations as “fake news.”
The deaths came after Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan decided last week to “throw open” the borders. The move has unleashed anger over the decision.
Thousands of Syrians and other would-be asylum seekers have been probing weak points in the border fence, trying to enter Greece as a stepping stone to reaching other European countries.
Greece’s center right prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has promised to defend the country’s borders and announced a month-long suspension of refugees’ right to seek asylum. He said all irregular migrants entering the country illegally would be deported without their asylum claims being considered.
In a statement, the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, condemned the move, saying it had no basis in international law.
“Asylum seekers should not be punished if they present themselves without delay to the authorities,” the statement said.
More than a thousand people have crossed the Aegean Sea to the Greek islands since Erdogan opened the border, in a move that Athens regards as blackmail for the international community failing to provide the support Turkey has requested for hosting the refugees.
On the island of Lesbos, violence erupted over the weekend. Angry islanders prevented one dinghy from landing at a harbor on the east of the island after the craft got into trouble. Journalists who tried to film the confrontation were beaten up and their cameras hurled into the sea.
All non-profit groups on the island are reported to have stopped work because of intimidation from vigilantes toward foreigners.
On Sunday, a transit camp for refugees, was burned down. It was empty at the time.
The Irish nongovernmental organization Refugee Rescue, which operates the only independent maritime life saving service, has hunkered down as have other nonprofits.
“The situation is deteriorating quickly here,” Refugee Rescue spokesperson Gracelin Moore told the NewsHour.
“Due to the violence perpetuated by those who have felt abandoned by Athens and the EU, it has become dangerous for NGOs. The same NGOs who are here to protect local communities. Many have had to evacuate the island,” Moore said.
The military will begin exercises on the shores of Lesbos beginning Monday at midnight. As a result, most NGO operations are expected to stop.
“The eyes of the world should be on this as the situation unfolds,” Moore said.
Over the past five years, more than a million people have landed on the shores of the Aegean islands. But Greece has been a reluctant host since December 2015, when the land border with what is now North Macedonia was closed.
Lesbos’ main “reception center” Moria, originally designed to hold 2,000 people, is now home to 20,000, living in tents and rudimentary shelters in adjacent olive groves.
Asylum seekers demanding liberty clashed with riot police Monday as the atmosphere on the island deteriorated.
Greece would like its European Union partners to take in some of the migrants, but the EU is divided over the issue. Former communist countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are resolutely refusing to accept quotas imposed by politicians in Brussels.
The European Commission’s new chief executive Ursula von der Leyen is due to reach the border region in North Eastern Greece on Tuesday.
“I acknowledge that Turkey is in a difficult situation with regards to the refugees and the migrants. But what we see now cannot be an answer or a solution,’ von der Leyen said.