ATHENS – A surge in Syrians fleeing that country’s civil war and going to Turkey could be redirected to the European Union through Greek islands, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has again threatened as he hikes provocations in the Aegean and East Mediterranean.
Tens of thousands of Syrians have moved towards the Turkish border in recent weeks because of attacks launched by Syrian regime and Russian forces on rebel positions in Syria’s north-western Idlib province and most want to get to Greece to seek asylum.
Turkey is letting human traffickers operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU, with scores of thousands more arriving on Greek islands since New Democracy won July 7 snap elections and ousted the Radical Left SYRIZA which had opened the door for them.
“Turkey will not carry this migration burden alone,” said Erdogan, with the country overwhelmed with more than 3.7 million Syrian refugees finding themselves pawn in his battle with the EU which backed Greece after Turkey signed a deal with Libya dividing the seas between them.
“The negative effects of this pressure on us will be an issue felt by all European countries, especially Greece,” he said, warning to open the floodgates again after millions poured into Europe, many through Greece, before the borders were shut to them.
In recent days, at least 100,000 Syrians have had to flee their homes in Idlib, according to the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organisation, as fighting intensified, said the British newspaper The Telegraph in a report on the EU and Greece being targeted.
An additional half a million people could be displaced over the coming weeks if the violence escalates, said the IRC, the most since the civil war began eight years ago. Greece has more than 96,000, mostly in detention centers and camps on islands and the mainland.
Overwhelmed by the rekindled crisis, the New Democracy government plans to replace camps with centers to vet those deemed ineligible for sanctuary as refugees fleeing war are being joined my economic migrants from areas such as sub-Saharan Africa seeking work.
There are about 40,000 on Greek islands near Turkey, thousands more willing to risk the perilous journey across the seas on overcrowded rickety craft and rubber dinghies, many drowning on the way.
In the notorious Moria camp on Lesbos, a facility the BBC called “the worst in the world,” there are nearly 20,000 in an area designed for 2,000, which has caused frequent violence between ethnic groups and with riot police called in to quell violence as frustration built over asylum applications that can take two years or more to be processed.
Thousands of men, women and children are living in a vast overspill area outside the camp’s wire fence, sleeping in tiny tents surrounded by mud and piles of rubbish, including about 1,300 unaccompanied minors, with some as young as 10 trying to kill themselves. “There are some very vulnerable people. It is totally, overwhelmingly shocking,” Dr. Jessica Hanson, a British doctor working in Moria over Christmas told the paper.. “We have people coming into the clinic every day who are suicidal or self-harming. There’s no electricity, no sanitation. It’s utterly grim.”
The 2016 EU-Turkey deal was supposed to see those not eligible for asylum being sent back but only about 2,000 have and Erdogan is upset that some terms of the deal that was supposed to bring Turkey 6 billion euros ($6.66 billion,) visa-free travel in the EU for Turkish citizens and a fast-track for the county’s dashed hopes of joining the bloc some day.