Greek PM stresses border protection, including at sea

ATHENS, Greece — Greece is “committed to protecting its borders,” including by intercepting people at sea if they are attempting to enter the country illegally, the country’s prime minister said Thursday after a meeting with his Lithuanian counterpart, whose country has faced an increased influx of migrants recently.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis made the comments after talks in Athens with Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, whose country has seen scores of people from the Middle East and Africa crossing from the border with Belarus in recent weeks.

Both leaders said the recent influx into Lithuania was orchestrated by Belarus’s government as a form of pressure against the European Union, of which both Greece and Lithuania are members. Mitsotakis likened the situation to that faced by Greece last year, when Turkey announced its borders to Europe were open, sending thousands of migrants to the Greek border.

Mitsotakis described Belarus’s actions as “simply unacceptable.” He said both Greece and Lithuania have faced situations that “are characterized by persistent migratory flows, coupled occasionally by an orchestrated effort by a third country to exert political pressure on the European Union through migration as a tool for the projection of geopolitical power.”

Belarus’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has cracked down on opposition protests since his re-election in a vote the West denounced as rigged. He halted cooperation with the EU on stemming illegal migration after the EU imposed sanctions.

Simonyte stressed that “Lithuania is not a corridor, is not a track towards the European Union, towards Sweden, Germany or other countries.” She said there were procedures in place for people to seek asylum, but that Belarus was not an unsafe country for people other than those opposing the government there. Many of the asylum applications by the new arrivals will likely be rejected, she said.

Greece has been one of the main points of entry into the European Union for people fleeing poverty or conflict in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. In 2015, around a million people entered the EU, the vast majority making their way from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands and then heading to wealthier central and northern European countries.

The country has since cracked down on migration, and says it robustly patrols its borders, noting they are also the EU’s external borders. But Greek authorities have also repeatedly been accused of carrying out illegal summary deportations of recently arrived migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum.

Government officials have repeatedly rejected the accusations, frequently labeling them as fake news. Mitsotakis said Greece protects its borders while also respecting human rights.

“We will continue to do so both in respect to our sovereign responsibilities, but also in line with EU regulations. And this of course includes intercepting attempted illegal crossings at sea,” he said.

“I need to point out that attempting such sea crossings is highly dangerous to those undertaking this journey, and those who are being encouraged to do so and are being facilitated and exploited by unscrupulous criminal gangs need to know that they will be held accountable for their actions,” Mitsotakis said.

“Neither Greece in the south, nor Lithuania in the north wish to be the gateway to Europe for people-smuggling networks or third-party states intent on putting pressure on the European Union,” he said.