Hundreds of refugees in Turkey began arriving at the country’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria on Friday after Ankara suddenly indicated it would no longer block their passage to Europe.
The move prompted both neighbouring nations to shore up their borders as their governments insisted they would not allow anyone to enter. Greek police used smoke grenades at one border crossing, while Bulgaria sent an extra 1,000 troops to its frontier with Turkey.
The European Union, meanwhile, warned the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that it expected Ankara to abide by a €6bn (£5.2bn) deal to stem migration to its member states. Under the 2016 agreement, Turkey agreed to halt the flow of people to the EU in return for funds. Turkey currently has about 3.6 million refugees from Syria. There was alarm in Brussels as footage of hundreds of refugees and migrants heading for the land and sea borders with Greece was aired by the Turkish state news agencies.
Turkey’s decision comes after an airstrike on Thursday night in Syria’s Idlib province killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers recently deployed to support the Syrian opposition in the face of a bruising Russian-backed Syrian government offensive.
Turkey’s police, coastguard and border guards were ordered to stand down overnight on Thursday, Turkish officials briefed reporters. The change in policy has not yet been officially confirmed.
Turkey often threatens to reopen the migrant route from the Middle East, which at its peak in 2015 saw thousands drown in the Mediterranean and a million people reach Greece and Italy, where many still live in miserable displacement camps. Thursday’s decision, however, would in effect reverse a 2016 deal Turkey struck with the EU to cut the numbers of migrants entering Europe. It appears to be designed to force the EU and Nato to support Ankara’s new military operation in Idlib.
Under the impression that the window to leave Turkey may be shortlived, some of the 3.6 million Syrians living in the country began to move quickly.
The Turkish news agency Demirören showed footage of what it said was 300 people, including women and children, walking on highways and through forested land in north-east Turkey towards the EU border early on Friday. Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Moroccans were among those in the group, it said.
In Istanbul, the local Syrian community began organising buses to take people from the city to the borders. Dozens of people waited for the informal transport at a square in the city’s Fatih district. At the bus station in the city, dozens of people – mostly young men and a few families – gathered in the hope of getting on buses to Edirne, the last big town before the Greek border, and await reports on what was happening at the border itself. One young Iraqi man hung up his phone and told those within earshot that the borders were still closed.
Turkish television also reported that people were leaving the western Turkish coastal district of Ayvacık, in Çanakkale province, on small boats and dinghies with the aim of travelling by boat to the Greek island of Lesbos. At least one small boat successfully made the perilous journey, while another boat carrying about 50 people reached the island of Samos, police said.
Turkey’s NTV channel also showed scores of people walking through fields wearing backpacks and said they had tried to cross the Kapıkule border into Bulgaria, but were not allowed through.
Greece boosted border patrols on Friday. An army source said about 300 people had been spotted on the Turkish side of the border in the north-eastern Evros region but that the numbers were “not out of the ordinary”.
“They will not enter the country. They are irregular migrants, we won’t let them enter,” a Greek government official told Reuters. The Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted: “Significant numbers of migrants and refugees have gathered in large groups at the Greek-Turkish land border and have attempted to enter the country illegally. I want to be clear: no illegal entries into Greece will be tolerated.”
Bulgaria also increased security. The prime minister, Boyko Borissov, announced that army units, border police and the national guard had been deployed to the border.
Erdoğan has frequently warned that he could open Turkey’s borders as part of his efforts to force European leaders into backing his military campaign in northern Syria.
Despite the footage of people travelling to Europe’s border, EU officials insisted on Friday they had not been officially informed that Turkey was reneging on the deal. A European commission spokesman said: “We expect Turkey to deliver on this part of the deal. We have heard the statements from the Turkish officials that there is no change to the Turkish policy in this respect, so far.”
Asked whether the EU could hold back on some of the €6bn ringfenced for Turkey under the migration deal, a spokesman declined to comment. The EU has so far disbursed €3.2bn of the funds dedicated to supporting aid for the refugees and migrants living in Turkey.
The Greek government has said it already expected some 100,000 people to enter the country in 2020 compared with 60,000 in 2019. The cramped conditions in refugee camps on Greek territory have been described as inhumane by NGOs.
Government officials said Mitsotakis had spoken by phone with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in light of the developments.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called for a halt to the bloodshed in Syria, warning of a “risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation”. He tweeted: “It is also causing unbearable humanitarian suffering and putting civilians in danger.”
The developments came as the EU’s border agency, Frontex, admitted to slow progress in hiring 10,000 officers to police its borders by 2024. A spokesman said the agency was “in the process” of hiring the first tranche of 700 officers to be ready to work in January 2021.