Turkey, Pressing E.U. for Help in Syria, Threatens to Open Borders to Refugees

BRUSSELS — In an apparently coordinated effort by Turkey to raise the pressure on Europe, Turkish state news agencies on Friday showed videos of hundreds of migrants making their way to the Turkish-Greek land border, seemingly facilitated by the Turkish authorities.

The broadcasts, an apparent effort by Turkey to press European leaders into supporting its military campaign in northern Syria, came hours after Turkey suffered heavy losses in fighting in Idlib Province in Syria, prompting an extraordinary NATO ambassadors’ meeting and fears of escalation.

European Union officials, fearful of a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis, were apprehensively watching the developments in Turkey on Friday, as migrants were shown on live television making their way to Turkey’s borders with Greece.

Videos released by Anadolu, Turkey’s state-controlled news wire, showed migrants making their way through fields and roads close to the Turkish-Greek border. A migrant interviewed by a Turkish channel near the border said she had been driven there free by bus.

A Turkish news crew also filmed a boat of migrants as it departed for Greece, in a stunt that implied coordination among smugglers, Turkish officials and the private news media, whose owners are heavily influenced by the government.

Another group that had been driven to the coast turned back after it realized there were no more boats ready to smuggle its members to Greece. But the steady drip of footage at least initially appeared to be coordinated, rather than an organic mass movement of refugees.

Local organizations and the authorities on the Greek islands said two boats had arrived on Lesbos on Friday morning. Lighthouse Relief, an aid group that helps coordinate landings in Lesbos, said it had witnessed a Turkish Coast Guard ship approach one of the boats and then let it pass.

The Greek authorities said they were reinforcing controls at their land borders with Turkey in the north, as well as preparedness on the islands in the northeastern Aegean that bore the brunt of the 2015-16 crisis and still host dozens of thousands of migrants in appalling conditions.

Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said there were “significant numbers” of people making their way to the northern land border with Turkey but warned that his country’s doors were closed.

“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,” he wrote on Twitter. “I want to be clear: no illegal entries into Greece will be tolerated.”

“Greece does not bear any responsibility for the tragic events in Syria and will not suffer the consequences of decisions taken by others,” he added.

Turkey has shown no sign of opening its southern border with Syria, where several hundred thousand Syrians are sheltering from attacks by the Assad government. Nor has it rescinded visa restrictions for Syrians living in Lebanon and Jordan.

A large proportion of the refugee influx to Europe in 2015 were Syrians who had come directly from Syria — or who had traveled by plane into Turkey from Jordan and Lebanon.

After the mass movement of asylum seekers in 2015, the European Union had struck a deal with Ankara, which saw it funding international and local organizations to help refugees in Turkey with 6.6 billion euros ($7.2 billion). The deal also foresaw that Syrians could be returned to Turkey from Greek islands, but in practice, the Greek government has not made much use of this provision.

“There is no official announcement from the Turkish side about any change to their asylum-seeker, refugee or migrant policy,” said Peter Stano, a spokesman from the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union.

“We expect Turkey to uphold its commitment,” he added.

But the Turkish government said that while its policy hadn’t changed formally, the situation had changed practically.

“We have said that Turkey would not be able to carry the pressure of incoming refugees. After the attacks, refugees are going ahead toward Europe and towards Turkey,” the governing party spokesman, Omer Celik, told CNN Turk television overnight Friday.

“Our refugee policy is the same, but there is a situation here now and we are not in a position anymore to hold the refugees,” Mr. Celik said.

Even if migrants and refugees manage to arrive in Greece and Bulgaria, the repeat of a situation similar to the one in 2015 is highly unlikely. Not only have neighboring Greece and Bulgaria shut their borders to prevent further movements, but the European Union has also invested heavily in keeping people in those countries and preventing them from traveling onward to the continent’s north.

Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels, and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.


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