Authorities say EU border agency Frontex has provided the Greek coast guard with a crewless airship to help combat irregular immigration and to augment search and rescue operations in the eastern Aegean Sea, where close to 20,000 migrants are staying in overcrowded camps on Greek islands. Separately, police found nearly 130 migrants in vehicles and detained two smugglers in two unrelated incidents, one in Greece and one in North Macedonia.
The Greek coast guard and the European Union’s border and coast guard agency Frontex will deploy a crewless airship to monitor the narrow strait that separates the Greek island of Samos and the Turkish coast starting on Tuesday.
Greece's merchant marine ministry says the 35-meter airship can fly as high as 1,000 meters and will be tethered to the ground on Samos, which is close to Turkey's coast.
The goal is to combat the illegal activity of human smugglers who every day transport dozens of migrants from Turkey to EU member state Greece.
Greece said on Monday that the blimp is equipped with thermal cameras and other observation equipment, allowing real-time information to be delivered to coast guard vessels patrolling the waters off Samos. The Mycale Strait that divides Samos and Turkey is less than two kilometers wide.
Unlike semi-rigid and rigid airships like Zeppelins, blimps are non-rigid airships that do not have an internal structural framework or a keel.
Overcrowded Greek islands
Samos is a major point of arrival for migrants making the risky sea journey, along with the other Aegean islands Lesbos, Chios, Leros and Kos.
Some 19,000 migrants in total were staying in overcrowded camps on those islands as of Monday.
Under a 2016 deal struck with the EU (‘EU-Turkey deal’), Ankara agreed to prevent migrants passing through its territory to Europe, in exchange for financial aid for refugees in Turkey.
The treaty was a response to the tens of thousands of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea and arriving on the Greek islands, or drowning in the attempt, in 2015.
But critics say the deal EU-Turkey deal has failed and caused Syrian asylum seekers to have been stuck in limbo in Greece.
Turkey has officially taken in over 3.5 million refugees from Syria.
Police stops trucks with smuggled migrants
Meanwhile, police stopped two separate attempts to smuggle migrants to the EU - one in North Macedonia, the other one in Greece. In the latter case, Athens police detained two alleged smugglers who had crammed 49 migrants into a truck and a passenger vehicle. Police said Monday migrants had to pay between €4,000 and €5,000 to the smugglers to get to Italy via ferry and on to central Europe.
In the other incident, North Macedonia police say they have detained 79 migrants found hidden in a truck near the border with neighboring Greece. They plan to deport the migrants back to Greece.
A police statement says the migrants were discovered on Sunday by a joint border patrol of officers from North Macedonia and Hungary on a road near the southern border town of Gevgelija.
The truck driver was arrested and the migrants were transferred to a shelter center in Gevgelija ahead of their deportation. Monday's police statement provided no details on the migrants' nationalities.
Despite a series of border closures in 2016, thousands of migrants who enter Greece irregularly from Turkey continue to trek through the Balkans as they seek to reach Europe's prosperous heartland.
With material from dpa, AP