Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long threatened to allow refugees and migrants transit into the EU, with which Turkey signed an accord in 2016, to stem westward migration in return for financial aid.
Now, Ankara has opened its western borders, sparking chaotic scenes as Greek troops attempted to prevent refugees from entering Europe en masse.
Erdoğan, claimed 18,000 migrants had crossed the border, without immediately providing supporting evidence, but many appear to have been repelled by Greek border patrols firing teargas and stun grenades.
He stressed the frontier would remain open. “We will not close these doors in the coming period and this will continue,” he said in Istanbul on Saturday. “Why? The European Union needs to keep its promises. We are not obliged to look after and feed so many refugees. If you’re honest, if you’re sincere, then you need to share.”
Erdoğan complained that funds transferred to Turkey from the EU to support refugees were arriving too slowly, saying he had asked Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to send them directly to his government.
But the policy shift appears to be intended to force the EU and NATO to support Ankara’s new military campaign in the north-western province of Idlib, Syria’s last rebel stronghold, where thousands of Turkish soldiers are supporting opposition forces facing an onslaught from regime forces backed by Russian air power.
Erdoğan said Turkey could not handle a new wave of migration, in an apparent reference to the growing humanitarian crisis in Idlib.
The Idlib offensive has pushed almost a million displaced civilians toward the Syrian-Turkish border, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians remain between advancing Syrian government forces backed by Russia and rebel fighters supported by Turkey.
In the largest single loss of life to Turkish forces since their country became involved in the Syria conflict, at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike on Thursday night.
After officials briefed on Friday that police, coastguard and border guards had been ordered to stand down, meaning passage to Europe would be no longer prevented, thousands of refugees and migrants made haste to Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria. Many travelled on buses provided by the Turkish state.
They were met by Greek border patrols reportedly firing teargas and stun grenades. Some young migrants and refugees appeared to hurl rocks at the guards.
“A titanic battle [is being waged]to keep our frontiers closed,” said Panayiotis Harelas, who heads the federation of border guards during an impromptu press conference at the scene.
Greek authorities said 52 ships were patrolling the seas around Lesbos, along with other Aegean isles, in an apparent show of force to deter clandestine voyages. Greece has also bolstered its eastern land border, while Bulgaria has sent an extra 1,000 troops to its border with Turkey.
A Greek government spokesperson, Stelios Petsas, said after an emergency meeting of ministers that security forces had repelled “more than 4,000 illegal entries”. Sixty-six people had been arrested after making their way through forest land into the country, none of whom were believed to hail from Idlib, according to Petsas.
There are more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, along with many others fleeing war and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Turkey’s borders to Europe were closed to migrants following a £5.2bn deal with the EU in 2016 after more than a million people crossed into Europe by foot.
As that policy was effectively reversed, Erdoğan claimed that the number of people entering Europe from Turkey could rise to up to 30,000 on Saturday. (Source: The Guardian)