While the world is manically washing its hands and stocking up on toilet paper, as commerce, travel and even social interactions are slowly shrinking in response to what some see as an unwarranted mass panic while others consider an impending health apocalypse, there is one place on Earth where the threat of Coronavirus has not stopped large numbers of people from congregating: the Turkish-Greek border.
For the past few weeks, Turkey’s Islamist leader, Racep Erdogan, has been encouraging crowds of what the media describes as “refugees” to cross into the European Union territory. As Foreign Policy reports:
On Feb. 28, the Turkish government announced Ankara would cease controlling its land and sea borders with Europe and open the passage for migrants wishing to cross. The announcement kindled hopes among the millions of refugees in Turkey whose dreams of life in Europe were dashed after the European Union and Turkey sealed a deal in early 2016 to prevent migrants from illegally entering Europe.
WhatsApp and Telegram groups sprung up immediately following the Turkish border announcement, advertising a so-called hope convoy traveling from Istanbul. Maps were sent out detailing where private buses would leave from, some chartered by local municipalities and others run by private companies with unregulated prices.
In the past three days, thousands of people have traveled from all over the country to try their luck at a new and more stable life. The majority are Afghans, with scores of Syrians, Iranians, Palestinians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and migrants from various East African countries. By the end of the day on Feb. 29, between 2,000 and 4,000 people had amassed in front of Greek border patrol, while others were spread out in groups among the trees on the Turkish side.
Erdogan is using the rootless Middle Eastern and Central Asian, many of them Syrians escaping the civil war now in its tenth year, as a tool to blackmail the EU for money and punish Europe when it proves stingy:
“Until all Turkey’s expectations, including free movement … updating of the customs union and financial assistance, are tangibly met, we will continue the practice on our borders,” [Erdogan] said in a televised speech…
Turkey agreed to stop migrant departures under a 2016 deal with Brussels, but says it has not received all of the six billion euros promised, nor have several other demands been met, including enhanced trade and visa arrangements.
Turkey hosts 4 million Syrians displaced by war, in which Turkey has played a supporting role, fighting mostly to weaken the Syrian Kurds. As the Syrian government of the ultimate survivor Bashir al Assad is closing in, with Russia’s assistance, on the last rebel-held area, Erdogan is fearing more human spillover into Turkey. Opening the border to the EU is also Erdogan’s way of pressuring Europe to do more for the lost cause of Syrian opposition, which Turkey is desperately trying to shore up in its last stand.
Numerous reports suggest the Turkish army and authorities busing the would-be migrants to the Greek border as well as trying to facilitate their exit by damaging Greek border infrastructure. Greece, with an already large number of migrants via Turkey straining its limited resources, is having none of that, with the Greek army and police protecting the border from any crossings. Tear gas has been used, and other reports suggest instances of physical violence against the massing immigrants (Greek authorities reject Turkish claims they have fired live ammunition killing at least one person).
Erdogan, never one to shy from a hyperbole, has now said that Greece’s treatment of refugees is “no different to Nazis”. This is a strange statement from a leader who otherwise is quite fond of Hitler, not least because Nazis are well known for trying to prevent people from leaving rather than stopping them from entering the Reich.
Turkey itself has learned its lessons over the past few years; a lesson, which it now wants to deny its neighbours. Between 2015 and 2018, Turkey had built a 764-kilometre wall, covering all but a 150 kilometres of the border with Syria, complementing a 155-kilometre wall along the Iranian border. Ironically, the European Union has kicked in more than 80 million Euros towards the costs of Turkish border protection, including security equipment.
The situation on the border is bound to get worse:
TV appearances from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and statements made by Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu continued on Monday, announcing that the number of migrants leaving the country via the north land crossing to Greece had reached 117,677.
This figure is alarming, considering that nowhere close to that number of refugees is even present at the border and the Greek authorities are not letting anyone in. The absolute maximum number of refugees this reporter saw at the border with Greece was no more than 4,000, with many spread out still on Turkish soil waiting for Greece to open the barbed fence for them to cross.
The broadcasted success rate only further encourages migrants to head to the border, where they are met with dismal conditions rather than the freedom of Europe they are searching for. The Turkish government-supported TRT Arabic channel even released a map to Europe, highlighting different routes that could be taken to reach as far as France, a feat seemingly impossible for now.
As always, cynicism accompanies human misery.