Thousands of migrants have made their way illegally into Greece from Turkey, using rickety rafts to cross the Aegean, the narrow waterway between the two countries.
United Nations data in September shows sea arrivals have already more than doubled the roughly 12,000 migrants who were caught trying to illegally enter Greece last year. Illegal entries along the land border and the massive Evros River that snakes along the rugged frontiers of the two countries in the northeast also count record increases of more than 65 percent in the last two months alone, police said.
“Much of this has to do with favorable weather conditions, and the receding levels of the Evros River that makes crossings easier,” said Dimitris Petrovic, Deputy Regional Governor of Evros, Greece.
Many of the migrants are spotted and rounded up by soldiers and border police, but police officials such as Alexandros Sfeliniotis said human traffickers have become increasingly ruthless.
“They have even begun recruiting minors, paying them tiny sums of money to lead caravans of migrants through illegal crossings,” he said. “They know that minors can get off the hook easier than adult smugglers.”
Illegal migration has always been a thorn in relations between Greece and Turkey. In the past, the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis went as far as accusing Turkey and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan of instrumentalizing migration — pushing migrants to Europe in a bid to win more concessions and aid from the European Union.
But as tensions between the two NATO members have eased in recent months, a meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the recent U.N. General Assembly showed strong willingness by the long-standing rivals to work together to stem illegal migration.
“We have to join forces and work together if we are going to crack down on smugglers,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
For Greece, this has meant an increased deployment of forces along the Evros River, as well as beefed up patrols across the Aegean Sea. Greek and Turkish coast guards that once refused to cooperate are now in contact again, and migration ministers on both sides are talking.
The endgame, senior government officials tell VOA, is to revise a key deal that the EU stitched together with Turkey in 2016, allowing for the return of the tens of thousands of illegal migrants to Turkey in exchange for more financial aid and visa-free entry of its Turkish travelers to Europe.
With relations between Greece and Turkey frequently see-sawing, the outcome remains uncertain.
Both sides have ordered teams of senior officials to hash out a deal that could be signed by early December, when Mitsotakis and Erdogan meet for a summit in Greece.