Migrants on an inflatable boat prepare to land as local residents prevent them from disembarking in Lesbos island, March 1 2020. Picture: ARIS MESSINIS / AFP
Migrants on an inflatable boat prepare to land as local residents prevent them from disembarking in Lesbos island, March 1 2020. Picture: ARIS MESSINIS / AFP

Athens — An influx of migrants seeking refuge in Europe has raised tensions along the heavily fortified border with Turkey and prompted the Greek government to convene an emergency meeting.

While the Turkish side says more than 100,000 refugees have left the country so far, it remains unclear how many have crossed into Europe or got stuck in no-man’s-land along the borders with Greece and Bulgaria. Another question is how many are escaping the conflict in Syria — many appear to be coming Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. Almost 5,500 people were prevented from entering Greece between 6am on Saturday and 6am Sunday, Greek officials said.

The European Union has maintained a guarded approach, wary of a repeat of the migration crisis that tested its physical frontiers five years ago and stoked anti-immigration populism from Italy to Germany. A desire to control migrants contributed to the UK’s decision to quit the EU Brexit, so the political reverberations are real.

The EU’s foreign chief says the bloc is following the situation closely, and its top diplomats have been summoned for an extraordinary meeting. But the impression is that the EU — and Germany, as the dominant economy — is biding its time to see how events unfold on the ground.

For now, the climate is politically charged. When approaching Greek borders in the area, holders of foreign mobile phones will receive the message saying that “Greece is increasing border security level to maximum. Do not attempt to illegally cross Greek borders.”

Overcrowded refugee

Strained already by overcrowded refugee camps, Greek islands also reported an increase in arrivals. The rapidly evolving emergency began when Turkey unsuccessfully sought EU and Nato support for its military campaign in Syria, following the heaviest troop losses in decades last week.

The EU has yet to agree on a joint position, prompting Erdogan to proclaim that his country can no longer accommodate people fleeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s offensive. Turkey already hosts the world’s largest number of Syrian refugees.

With Erdogan continuing to order Syria strikes in retaliation for the deaths of his troops, Turkey shot down two Syrian SU-24 fighter jets and destroyed three air-defence systems, the Turkish defence ministry said on Sunday in a statement. The Syrian jets were downed after they attempted to attack Turkish jets, the ministry said, without elaborating.

Turkey has warned that the fall of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, the last rebel bastion in the country, may trigger another mass exodus of refugees towards its border.

Migration flows to Europe decreased following a 2016 deal under which Ankara stemmed the flow in exchange for financial assistance. It’s unclear as of Sunday whether this deal is still being implemented, amid repeated messages from Turkey that it will “loosen” its controls.

The German government expects Turkey to fulfil the EU refugee agreement, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday.

In a phone call with Erdogan on Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to Turkey’s effort to aid Syrian refugees, and asked that it co-operates on the management of migrant flows, reminding the Turkish leader of the “solidarity” of France and the EU. It’s unclear whether such verbal expressions of sympathy will be sufficient to appease the Turkish president.

Border showdown

As thousands of desperate asylum seekers flocked towards the Greek border, the prospect looms of uncontrolled violence with Greek security forces sent to stop them. Homeland security minister Michalis Chrisochoidis said on Saturday that Greece wants to send the message that no-one shall pass into Europe without the appropriate legal travel documents.

An EU diplomat in Brussels said that conveying this message may be hard, unless the bloc as a whole, including Germany, makes clear to the people trying to leave Turkey that the way in is shut. EU government envoys will meet in Brussels on Monday, after successive attempts to agree on a joint position over the weekend failed.

Another wave of migration could derail a delicate recovery for the entire region, already gripped by fear and travel restrictions over the spread of the coronavirus, which is morphing into a pandemic and defies national frontiers. Anti-immigration populist politicians from Italy to Germany are poised to seize the opportunity to go on the attack.

Bloomberg 

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