Greece, Turkey trade barbs over refugees. Athens claims Turkey encourages Iranians to flee illegally to Greece
A new chapter has been added to the already stormy relationship between Greece and Turkey. The two NATO member countries - which have traded verbal salvos in the past 12 years over the Cyprus situation, rights in the Aegean Sea, and more recently Turkey's efforts at full entry into the European Economic Community - are now swapping barbs over Iranian refugees who are coming into Greece from Turkey.
The border region involved in the dispute is a 120-mile stretch of agricultural land in the northeast corner of Greece where only two roads and one rail line provide legal passage between the two countries. At the one brief section of the border not defined by the 'Evros River, Greek and Turkish guards face one another nose-to-nose across a barbed-wire fence.
The Athens government claims that, since late August, 122 Iranians have crossed the 'Evros and that another 3,000 are gathered at a camp near the Turkish city of Edirne waiting to enter. It also asserts that thousands more are staying in Istanbul to arrange their passage into Greece and other countries in the West.
Representatives in Athens for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) have interviewed some of the refugees at the frontier. The organization, which gives no estimate of the number of total Iranian entries, maintains a number of refugee camps in Turkey.
For its part, Turkey acknowledges that 36 Iranians passed into Greece in mid-October. The Turkish Embassy in Athens, however, has labeled as ``fabrications'' the allegations that other crossings have been made and that thousands more Iranians are amassed at the border.
Turkey also counters a Greek charge that Turkish guards fired at refugees to force them into Greece, saying border outposts on both sides of the frontier traded warning shots during the October crossing.
One Turkish spokesman expressed surprise at Greece's demand that Turkey restrict the movement of Iranians, saying this violates the 1951 Geneva Convention on the legal status of refugees. Iranians do not require a visa for entry into Turkey.
Diplomatic sources here say Turkey is grappling with a serious Iranian-refugee problem. According to one source, the widely accepted estimate of the number of Iranians seeking refuge in Turkey is 300,000 to 350,000.
In a meeting with journalists at the border a week ago, the Greek military commander of the region, Maj. Gen. Dimitri Scarveli, denied earlier Greek contentions that Turkish soldiers had fired at Iranian refugees. The general also played down previous Greek Foreign Ministry allegations of official Turkish complicity in the Iranian exodus. He would say only that his military counterpart on the other side of the river ``was not doing his job very well.''
General Scarveli did confirm a story, published two weeks ago in a pro-government Athens daily, that outlined a UNHCR report allegedly based on interviews with the 36 Iranians who crossed into Greece and asked for asylum.
According to the newspaper, the UN report profiles many of the asylum-seekers as youths who are fleeing conscription into the Iranian Army or who are dissatisfied with regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The newspaper's account cited the United States and Western Europe as the destinations of choice.
Some Iranians reportedly pay $3,000 to $6,000 for their journey back in their country.
But the story also describes a lucrative Turkish black market for Iranian passports in which the documents are bought for $700 to $800 and the promise of safe passage through Turkey. Some passports are then resold, with names and photographs changed, for as much as $12,000 to $15,000 to those refugees who want to attempt a more conventional passage into a country to seek asylum.
The Turkish embassy here denies the newspaper's story, and the UNHCR office in Athens said it never talked with the paper's staff.
The Greek military says the border with Turkey has been closed since October. With that door closed, some Iranian refugees have found another route.
Last week 10 of them, ranging in age from 20 to 28 years, landed in a small boat on the Greek island of Lesvos, six miles from Turkey's Asia Minor coast. They reportedly started their voyage in Iran and had been at sea, on various boats, for two weeks.