Migrants Again Try To Leave Turkey For Europe, But This Time The Gate Is Closed

Mar 2, 2020
Originally published on March 2, 2020 9:33 am

Thousands of migrants are lining Turkey's border with Greece, egged on by the Turkish government, which declared last Friday that the path to Europe is open.

But as migrants have arrived, they have found the door to the European Union firmly blocked by barbed wire, a rapidly flowing river and riot police armed with tear gas.

"Do not attempt to enter Greece illegally, you will be turned back," the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, tweeted on Sunday. "The borders of Greece are the external borders of Europe. We will protect them."

Mitsotakis's conservative government sent troops to police the border and said it will refuse to accept new asylum applications for a month, invoking an emergency clause in European treaties allowing it to do so. It also vowed to deport anyone who crossed by land or sea in contravention of European and international law.

The Greeks also added patrols along its sea borders in the Aegean Sea and asked the EU's border-patrol agency, Frontex, for reinforcements. On Sunday, a child drowned off the coast of the Aegean island of Lesvos after a migrant boat capsized.

"You're not welcome here," Greek authorities told migrants by text message and megaphone. A Greek farm workers association even offered to guard the border with tractors.

The migration issue hasn't been this explosive in Europe since 2015, when the EU took in more than a million asylum-seekers. A 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey drastically reduced the number of arrivals by giving Turkey billions of euros to care for four million migrants there.

The funding for that deal expired last year, but the EU has not followed up with a new plan, says Gerald Knaus, the architect of that 2016 deal and an Austrian social scientist who heads the European Stability Initiative in Berlin.

"Instead of discussing with the Turks how to help the rising number of Syrian refugees in Turkey for the next few years, the EU has just dropped the ball, partly out of sheer negligence," he says. "So what we see now is a desperate cry by Turkey to re-engage. And it's unfortunately directed against another government under enormous pressure in Athens."

Knaus says Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan has weaponized migrants to compel European support for his military's operation in Syria's Idlib province. The fighting there has sent more than a million Syrians fleeing toward Turkey, which has repeatedly said it cannot handle more migrants.

Meanwhile, in Athens, Mitsotakis held an emergency national security meeting on Sunday to manage what government spokesman Stelios Petsas calls "an organized mass attempt to violate Greece's land and sea borders." Petsas also accused Turkey of facilitating people-smuggling.

Storming the border

Migrants try to cut the fence at the Turkish-Greek border near the Pazarkule border gate in Edirne, Turkey, on Monday. Thousands of migrants and refugees massed at Turkey's western frontier, trying to enter Greece by land and sea after Turkey said its borders were open to those hoping to head to Europe.
Darko Bandic / AP

Turkey's interior minister Suleyman Soylu claimed on Twitter that more than 100,000 migrants had left Turkey on Sunday via the Edirne border crossing, entering a no man's land between the Turkish and Greek border checkpoints. But the International Organization for Migration says the number is, for now, much lower — more like 15,000.

Lanna Walsh, an IOM Turkey spokesperson, told NPR that migrants have set up camp in fields between the Greek and Turkish borders and are waiting to see what happens.

"We did see a lot of people go back [to Turkey]," she says. "Some people have decided maybe they won't try [to enter Greece] now or they might move westward and try to cross from Izmir."

Right across from Izmir, which is in western Turkey, are Greece's Aegean islands, where about 1,000 migrants have arrived since Sunday.

One Aegean island, Lesvos, became globally known for its goodwill toward asylum-seekers in 2015 and 2016. Locals and tourists pitched in to welcome up to 10,000 asylum-seekers arriving on shore every day, and grandmothers brought cheese pies. Islanders were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.

Since then the mood has drastically soured, especially as the island's main refugee camp has grown grossly overcrowded — it now houses eight times the number of people it was built for. Residents of Lesvos and another island, Chios, have been protesting in recent days over plans to build big, prison-like detention centers for migrants.

This weekend, a video on the Greek media site Lifo showed a group of aggressive islanders on Lesvos taunting migrants crowded onto a boat floating off a landing. The migrants include children and a pregnant woman. The Greeks yelled: "Illegals! Go back! We don't care about the babies — they're not ours!"

The Athens News Agency reported that islanders also threatened humanitarian workers and journalists. The mayor of Lesvos joined a crowd trying to block newly arrived migrants from entering the refugee camp.

Brussels promised Greece help and solidarity. An EU crisis response team meets tomorrow. The EU Foreign Affairs Council is meeting next week, at Greece's request. EU leaders, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron, have tweeted their support for Greece.

Many in the EU fear the migration issue will revive the nativist populism that is still threatening the bloc's survival, especially as fears over the spread of coronavirus play into the hands of populists. Orban calls migrants "invaders" and was the first EU leader to close borders to asylum-seekers in 2015. This weekend, his government's spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, said "all measures are being taken for the protection of Hungarian people and the Hungarian border."

Knaus, of the European Stability Initiative, says the EU can't be a beacon of human rights unless it moves quickly to re-engage with Turkey and assist Greece with its severely overcrowded camps.

"The alternative has always been Viktor Orban, who says let's just treat those who come as an invading army," Knaus says. "Let's confront them with tear gas, let's arrest them, let's criminalize them."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Many refugees from Syria have been stopped at the edge of Europe. People fleeing north out of Syria have fled northward into Turkey for years. Turkey has now said it will allow more of those refugees to continue onward into Greece. Turkey says, quote, "the path to Europe is open." Greece says the path is not. Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: You can hear the crowd stuck in a muddy field between the Turkish and Greek border checkpoints in this Greek news video. The orange glow of campfires can be seen through rolls of Greek barbed wire.


STELIOS PETSAS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas told reporters that thousands of migrants camping here had tried to cross. Most were stopped. Those who slipped through were arrested.


PETSAS: (Through interpreter) The government is determined to do whatever it takes to protect our borders.


KAKISSIS: Police shot tear gas canisters at one point along the border over the weekend. Prime Minister Kenny Kyriakos Mitsotakis sent troops to patrol the border, he froze asylum requests for a month, and he promised to deport anyone who crossed illegally. The migration issue has not been this explosive in Europe since 2015, when the EU took in more than a million asylum-seekers. A 2016 deal that gave Turkey money to care for some 4 million migrants drastically reduced the number of arrivals in Europe, but money for that deal has run out, and the EU has not followed up with another plan.

GERALD KNAUS: Instead of discussing with the Turks how to help the rising number of Syrian refugees in Turkey for the next few years, the EU has just dropped the ball.

KAKISSIS: Gerald Knaus is an Austrian social scientist who is the architect of the 2016 migration deal with Turkey.

KNAUS: So what we see now is a desperate cry by Turkey to reengage, and it's unfortunately directed against another government under enormous pressure in Athens.

KAKISSIS: Greece is already struggling to manage migrants who have crossed the border. Turkey's interior ministry claims more than 100,000 migrants are trying to do the same; the International Organization for Migration says the real number is more like 15,000. Lanna Walsh of the IOM's office in Turkey spent the weekend with migrants at one border crossing.

LANNA WALSH: We noticed that many of them had decided to just stay and see what happens. We did see a lot of people go back. Some people maybe have decided that they won't try now, or they might try to move westward and try to cross from Izmir.

KAKISSIS: Izmir is in western Turkey, right across from the Aegean islands of Greece. Migrant detention centers on the Greek islands are severely overcrowded. Islanders who used to welcome migrants have turned against them.


KAKISSIS: One video from the island of Lesbos shows a group blocking a boat of migrants from disembarking. The migrants include children.


KAKISSIS: The Greeks yell, illegals go back - we don't care about the babies; they're not ours. Greece is beefing up its coast guard patrols to keep more migrants from coming. It's also getting assistance from the EU, which will take up this new migration crisis at an emergency meeting of foreign ministers next week.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "IT'S ONLY WORDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.