Migrants at Greek borders have been told by the EU that ‘Europe is closed’ as they are caught in the middle of no man’s land.
In a blunt message, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said: “Don’t go to the border. The border is not open. If someone tells you that you can go because the border is open … that is not true.”
“Avoid the situation in which you could be in danger … Avoid moving to a closed door,” he said. “And please don’t tell people that they can go because it’s not true.”
Borrell was speaking after a hastily convened meeting of EU foreign ministers in Zagreb, where the bloc restated its criticism of “Turkey’s use of migratory pressure for political purposes”.
Tensions flared last weekend when the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared he was “opening the doors” because Turkey could no longer cope with refugees fleeing Idlib province, the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria.
Thousands of refugees and migrants have since attempted to reach Greece via its land or sea borders. Greek riot police have been using teargas and water cannon to repel people trying to get into the country, while Turkish police have been firing volleys of teargas towards Greece in return.
EU ministers met hours after a ceasefire in Idlib came into force, following an agreement in Moscow between Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin on Thursday. Russia and Turkey, on rival sides in Syria’s war, have agreed to preserve some territorial gains made by Russian-backed Syrian forces during the three-month offensive in Idlib, while Turkey keeps a foothold in the region.
On Friday skies in the province were free of warplanes for the first time in three months as the ceasefire appeared to be holding, although clashes before dawn in the south killed six regime soldiers and nine fighters from the Uighur-dominated jihadist group the Turkistan Islamic party, a war monitor said.
On Friday, the EU announced €60m (£52m) in humanitarian aid for civilians in north-west Syria, while warning of the complexities of distributing food, medical supplies and tents in the war-torn region.
On his return from Moscow, Erdoğan signalled there was no change in policy. “Our gates are open. The refugees will go as far as they can,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency quoted him as saying.
Turkey has also announced it is sending 1,000 special operations police to prevent Greek authorities from returning people who manage to cross, raising the prospect of vulnerable people trapped indefinitely in a no-man’s land.
Meanwhile, the EU is under fire from human-rights NGOs for accepting Greece’s decision to suspend asylum applications for one month. In an open letter to EU leaders and the Greek prime minister Kyriákos Mitsotákis, 85 charities, including Action Aid and Amnesty International, said they were “deeply concerned” about how authorities were handling new arrivals to Greece.
Greece’s decision to keep its borders shut to asylum seekers is widely supported among EU leaders, who fear a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis, when more than 1 million people arrived in Europe after the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, signalled that the doors were open to them.
Growing numbers of people have been bussed to the Evros region by Turkish authorities. Despite international criticism of Turkey exploiting migrants for its own political ends, Ankara continued to insist that the land border – unlike the Aegean isles – had never been part of the landmark accord reached in 2016 between Turkey and the EU to stem migratory flows.
Meanwhile, thousands of Greek-Americans have signed a letter to the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, telling him that Erdoğan “is weaponizing migrants who are not even from Syria in order to blackmail Europe. These are not the actions of an ally, a humanitarian, or a responsible global actor. These are the actions of a human trafficker or a terrorist.” (Source: The Guardian)