ANKARA - Stepping up his provocations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he not only won’t stop refugees and migrants who came to his country from other lands from getting to the European Union through Greece but that he’ll open the doors.
He warned that “millions” of people would soon head toward Europe, after dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in an area of northern Syria Turkey had invaded, setting off a likely scenario in which more Syrians would head for Turkey to flee civil war.
Turkey has about 5.5 million refugees and migrants, most from Afghanistan and Syria but from a number of other countries, those not fleeing war but seeking jobs and a better life in the EU, which has closed its borders to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece.
“After we opened the doors, there were multiple calls saying ‘close the doors’,” Erdogan said in Ankara, according to reports. “I told them ‘it’s done. It’s finished. The doors are now open. Now, you will have to take your share of the burden’,” he said.
“Since we have opened the borders, the number of refugees heading toward Europe has reached hundreds of thousands. This number will soon be in the millions,” he said.
A 2016 EU-Turkey swap deal drastically cut down the numbers of refugees and migrants landing on Greek islands near the Turkish coast, hoping to reach more prosperous countries before the doors were shut to them.
As part of the agreement, Turkey was supposed to take back those who didn’t get asylum but only about 2000 have been returned in nearly four years. Erdogan though is upset that the EU is holding back 3 billion euros ($3.33 billion) of the 6 billion euros he was promised, and hasn’t given Turkey fast-track entry into the bloc nor visa-free travel for its citizens.
According to reports, Erdogan also said he hoped to reach a deal on a ceasefire in Syria when he meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin March 5 after clashes with Russian-backed Syrian forces in the country’s northwestern Idlib province.
Erdogan’s warning came after thousands of refugees and migrants had already massed on the northern land border with Greece at the treacherous Evros River where scores had drowned in the past few years trying to get across. Hundreds more were arriving on Greek islands, especially Lesbos, setting the government to send police and army units to the land border, suspend asylum application processing and leading Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to also say would take no more.
BATTLE LINES BEING DRAWN
There are about 100,000 in Greece, including some 42,000 on five islands near the Turkish coast as Turkey had already been allowing human traffickers to keep sending more during the essentially-suspended swap deal.
The EU, which tweeted support for Greece but hasn’t acted with sanctions against Erdogan as it did with officials of Turkey’s state-run petroleum company for drilling off Cyprus, will take a bigger presence now.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament President David Sassoli, and European Council President, Charles Michel - who represents the heads of state in the EU, were to go to the Evros River border with Mitsotakis.
Greece said it’s taking on the battle to defend not only its borders but also those of the EU and wants more concrete action beyond tweets and photo opportunities.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of refugees and migrants at the Greek border is estimated at around 13,000 people and tensions are rising as they try to push through.
Meanwhile, islanders who once had greeted refugees and migrants have grown weary after four years of dealing with the problem, blocking one boat from landing on Lesbos and with a 7-year-old child drowning when another capsized in the Aegean, coming from Turkey.
The Greek military held a live fire exercise along the Evros River to show its intentions to keep out the refugees and migrants and the EU’s border patrol agency Frontex said it would add surveillance teams there and in the Eastern Aegean, said Kathimerini.
Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri said the agency was withdrawing border guards participating in other operations so that they can be sent to Greece although that hasn’t deterred refugees and migrants for the last four years.
Senior Frontex officials told the paper that border guards would be coming along with more boats, airplanes and vehicles to add in guarding Greece’s border, amid fears if Erdogan makes good on his threat that it could be overwhelmed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she understands Turkey is trying to deal with millions of refugees and migrants and could get hordes more after its Syrian incursion but that it’s “wholly unacceptable” to send them toward Greece.
US President Donald Trump spoke on the telephone with Mitsotakis and reportedly acknowledged Greece’s right to guard its border while Turkey’s Anadolu Agency, said US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said what Turkey does on its border regarding refugees and migrants is “its own decision to make.”
Trump and Erdogan are friends and Esper’s vague answer left it up in the air what the US would do even though it renewed a military deal in 2019 with Greece.