BRUSSELS – The number of migrants entering Europe from Turkey rose significantly last year as people fleeing strife in Syria and Afghanistan flooded into the country and then set out for Greece, the head of the European Union’s border agency said Friday.
More than 82,000 migrants tried to enter Europe without authorization in 2019, an increase of 46% over the previous year, Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri said in Brussels.
“This was mainly due to the situation in Syria, but also instability in Afghanistan, and changing policies towards Afghan nationals by Iranian and Pakistani authorities,” Leggeri told reporters. He refused to blame the Turkish coast guard, saying it is “working well” to intercept people who leave.
The EU agreed in 2016 to give Turkey up to 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) in Syrian refugee aid money and other incentives to persuade the government in Ankara to stop migrants leaving for Greece. But since last summer, Greece's eastern islands have struggled to ease severe overcrowding at refugee camps where outbreaks of violence frequently occur. On the Greek island of Lesbos, protests broke out Friday in front of the country's largest refugee camp after an asylum seeker died of stab wounds. Several dozen migrants set fire to trash bins and blocked traffic outside the camp before riot police were called in to disperse them.
Authorities said the 20-year-old man from Yemen died while being taken to a hospital by ambulance late Thursday following a clash at the Moria camp on Lesbos. A 27-year-old Afghan migrant was arrested in connection with the incident and was being questioned, police said.
Overcrowding at Moria has steadily worsened over the past year as the number of arrivals of migrants and refugees using clandestine routes from Turkey to the Greek islands remains high.
Frontex said the number of arrivals last year was the highest since the EU-Turkey deal came into force.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that his country cannot shoulder the burden of hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees alone and has in the past threatened to “open the gates” for migrants to head for Europe. He is seeking more EU money and the Europeans appear likely to acquiesce.
Ankara also sought EU political and financial help in setting up a safe area in northern Syria, where people fleeing the conflict could take refuge or be sent to from Turkey, but the Europeans are reluctant to get involved. ___
Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece, contributed.