(CN) – Tensions are high on the border between Turkey and Greece after Ankara sent 1,000 special forces this week to help thousands of refugees and immigrants seeking to cross the border into the European Union.
On Friday, there were reports that Turkish forces fired tear gas at Greek forces that had used a water cannon to disperse groups of asylum-seekers trying to cross through fences and barriers into Greece at the Kastanies/Pazarkule border. Both sides shot tear gas at each other earlier in the week.
Greek officials allege the Turkish forces are seeking to help people cross the fenced border. Turkish officials charge that Greece is violating its duty to take in asylum-seekers and abusing refugees.
A week ago, as fighting erupted between Turkey and Syria in the Syrian province of Idlib, Turkey said it could no longer house so many refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants and it began encouraging tens of thousands of people to head for the Greek border and enter the EU.
In response, Greece closed its border and sent in police and soldiers to keep the mass of people from entering. Greece, which is now led by a right-wing government, also said it would stop processing asylum claims for a month.
Clashes between Greek forces and asylum-seekers amassing at the border erupted last weekend. Greek police used stun grenades, tear gas and water cannons to repel the crowds. In the past week, Greek authorities say they have stopped more than 35,000 people from attempting to cross the border.
EU leaders have backed Greece’s decision to stop the flow of people, even as videos released by the Turkish coast guard showed Greek authorities acting aggressively and violently toward people aboard dinghies seeking to enter Greek waters.
Turkey also alleges Greek authorities shot and killed four people trying to cross the border. Greece denies the allegations. A child drowned during one attempted crossing, Turkish officials said.
Under a 2016 deal, the EU gave Turkey $6.6 billion to host refugees from the Syrian civil war and other people seeking to enter the EU for work and refuge. There are about 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
But in recent months, as grievances grew between Turkey and the EU, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to send refugees and immigrants in Turkey to Europe. His government is now carrying out that threat, sparking a war of words with European leaders.
On Friday, in a move meant to appease Turkey, EU leaders discussed giving Turkey more money to handle the large number of refugees it hosts. The number of refugees in Turkey is increasing due to the fighting in Idlib, with about 900,000 people fleeing the province.
For now, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has the backing of European leaders who are fearful of seeing a repeat of 2015, when about 1.8 million refugees entered the EU. Europe’s welcoming of refugees at the time sparked widespread anger and led to a rise in xenophobia and far-right political parties across Europe.
About a quarter of the people at the Greek border are Syrian and most of the rest are Afghans, Pakistanis, Iranians and Africans, according to Turkish estimates. Media outlets report that many people at the border say they may give up trying to enter Greece.
Human rights groups are condemning Europe’s tough stance and Greece’s refusal to take in refugees and asylum-seekers.
“Erdogan cynically opened Turkey’s EU border to let people leave, while keeping the Syria border shut to those desperate to escape the war’s horrors,” said Andrew Stroehlein, media director for Human Rights Watch in Europe, on Twitter. “Greece has responded with brutality and disregard for human rights – all while being cheered on by EU leaders.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)