THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities picked up about 70 migrants, including children, in a snowy forest near the northern city of Thessaloniki on Wednesday, as smugglers turned to previously popular routes into the European Union rather than the sea crossing from Turkey.
Members of the group, who said they were from Syria, told Greek police they had crossed the Evros River on the Greek-Turkish border in dinghies and were then brought to Thessaloniki hidden in a truck.
The truck driver left them in the forest late Tuesday, and they spent the night there in the snow, authorities said. Police are searching for the driver.
Temperatures have plunged below freezing in the past two days across many parts of the country, with nighttime snowfall in the mountains and northern areas.
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“We stayed all night in the forest. It was very cold and it was snowing,” 22-year-old Syrian Omar Abdi Aziz told The Associated Press by telephone.
“We are very tired,” he said, adding they had been walking for more than three days as part of their journey out of Turkey. Aziz was trying to get to Sweden, where other members of his family are living.
Under a European Union-Turkey deal reached in March, migrants and refugees arriving on Greek islands from Turkey face deportation back to Turkey. However, the deal doesn’t extend to those crossing the two countries’ land border.
The Evros region has seen a significant increase in people crossing illegally in recent months. Police figures show 11 smugglers and 291 migrants were detained in the area in September, while 22 smugglers and 655 migrants were caught in October.
More than 62,000 migrants and refugees are stranded in Greece, many living in overcrowded refugee camps set up across the country. Aid groups have long complained of the conditions in the camps — some of which still consist of tents, set up out in the open or inside warehouses and buildings.
Last week a woman and a child died and several others were injured in a fire that swept through a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. The fire apparently was started accidentally by a cooking gas canister being used in one of the tents.
Follow Costas Kantouris on Twitter on https://twitter.com/CostasKantouris