Protests planned at Greek border after more migrants drown

ALEXANDROUPOLIS, Greece -- Human rights groups and local campaigners are calling on Greece's government to ease transit restrictions at the country's heavily militarized border with Turkey, in the wake of two deadly boat sinkings that left at least 46 migrants and refugees dead.

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At least 60 people have died in Greek waters this month while trying to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands in poor weather conditions, most using dinghies and old wooden boats. On Saturday, high winds delayed plans by Coast Guard divers to search for bodies off the island of Kalymnos, where most of the people in Friday's accidents died.

Marie Elisabeth Ingres, heading the Greek mission of relief agency Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, said creating a "safe point of passage" at the Greek-Turkish border should be a priority.

"Since the beginning of this crisis, MSF has been calling for legal and safe reception to be made available at the land border between Turkey and Greece," she told The Associated Press.

"At present, even though reception facilities are available at the land border, people are effectively blocked from crossing it and have no other option but to turn to illegal means to reach the continent, risking their lives and often the lives of their families at sea."

More than 850,000 refugees and migrants travelled to Greek islands in 2015 on their journey to central and northern Europe, in the continent's worst refugee crisis since World War II. Only 3,600 crossed the Greek-Turkish land border in the previous 12 months, in a region with a heavy military and police presence, and 10.5-kilometre (6 1/2 mile) border fence built four years ago.

A transit camp for refugees near the Greek border town of Orestiada, visited by The Associated Press, currently has just 40 occupants -- in conditions that sharply contrast with overcrowded facilities on Lesbos and other Greek islands, where arrivals averaged 2,300 per day last year and peaked at around 7,000.

Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas, in an interview late last year, said it was "impossible under present conditions" to allow mass screening at the border, implying that authorities would be overwhelmed by the number of arrivals.

Later Saturday, left-wing protest groups in Greece were planning to launch two days of demonstrations, gathering at the border town of Alexandroupolis Saturday, before a march Sunday toward the border fence that is inside a restricted military area.

Most of the 200-kilometre land border between Greece and Turkey is separated by the Evros River -- known as the Meric River in Turkey -- while 12.5-kilometre stretch of land separating the two countries was previously lined with minefields and is now separated by the fence.

The area is guarded with police and military patrols on land and on the Evros River, a network of cameras, and a small mission officers from the European border protection agency, Frontex.

"In the 12.5 kilometre area of the land border, the problem has been solved. The number of crossings is zero," said Police Col. Paschalis Siritoudis, head of the Orestiada police department, who said 480 smuggling suspects had been arrested in the region since 2011.

"That sends a strong message that crossing the Evros River is no longer a desirable option," he said.

"Some people are of the opinion that the fence should go. We are carrying out the orders of the (police) and political leadership. The fence is there. It is supported by cameras and patrols and we continue to operate this way until the orders change."


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