The situation at the Greek-Turkish land border worsened dramatically on Saturday (29 February) following Ankara’s official decision to let thousands of migrants enter EU territory.
According to Greek media, more than 4,000 people have repeatedly attempted to cross the Evros border in north-eastern Greece and have been stopped by Greek police forces who used sound grenades and teargas.
Reportedly migrants are taken to the Greek border by buses, free of charge.
A total of 66 people has been able to temporarily cross the border since Friday and have been arrested. Greek government spokesperson Stelios Petsas said that, contrary to Ankara’s arguments, none of them came from northern Syria’s province of Idlib.
On Thursday (27 February), the Moscow-backed Syrian regime forces killed 34 Turkish troops in Idlib. Ankara said the attack had caused a new wave of refugees who will now not be stopped by Turkey in trying to reach the EU.
“What did we do yesterday (Friday)? We opened the doors,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in Istanbul on Saturday. “We will not close those doors …Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises,” he added without further explanation.
Greek police used tear gas to push back migrants. However, videos published by Greek media also show migrants throwing incandescent woods, stones and even Turkish-made tear gas against police forces.
Erdoğan said 30,000 migrants would be at the EU border on Friday.
At the sea border between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean, 181 migrants entered the Greek territory from Turkey on Friday.
In addition, migrants and refugees at the Moria refugee camp reportedly received phone messages the previous night suggesting that “the border was opened and there is a ship in the port of Mytilene waiting to take you to the Greek mainland”. The sender of this SMS is still unknown.
Meanwhile, EU foreign policy high representative Josep Borrell held telephone talks with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoğlu, who reassured him that Ankara will be sticking to the March 2016 EU-Turkey Statement when it comes to migrants’ returns.
On Friday, the Commission said the EU assumes that Turkey stands by the 2016 agreement as it hasn’t said that it abandons it. The next day’s reality on the ground seems to indicate that the agreement no longer works.
In this context, EU sources told EURACTIV it was up to EU member states to take an initiative, as the EU-Turkey Statement was signed by the EU Council.
However, it’s not clear yet whether the scope of the EU-Turkey Statement applies to land borders in addition to sea frontiers.
Sources said the Turkish government’s inconsistency raises “reliability” concerns and wondered if Cavusoğlu had spoken to Erdoğan before he said Turkey opened its borders to the migrants.
Greece blocks NATO statement
According to diplomatic sources quoted by Greek journal To Vima, a discussion in NATO at the level of permanent representatives held in Brussels last night did not reach a consensus to support NATO member Turkey following the attack in Idlib.
Athens asked to include a reference to respect for the EU-Turkey Statement on migration, an addition which the US, the UK, France and Germany strongly opposed.
Turkey has called for stronger NATO support, mainly at the intelligence level, and for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Idlib.
No tensions on the Bulgarian border
The situation on the Bulgarian border remains quiet, although migrants have the choice to cross over the land border into either Bulgaria or Greece. TV footage showed refugees saying that they had been told going to Bulgaria was “forbidden” and that they were told to go to Greece instead.
Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov spoke to Erdoğan by telephone and is due to meet him on Monday. Speaking in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, Borissov said his country had been the most supportive of Turkey at the NATO meeting, and this was why there was no migration pressure on Bulgaria.
He also said that until 22.30 on Friday there had been a discussion to release funds for Turkey with the Presidents of the Council and the Commission. He said he was not authorised to speak, but large amounts would be channelled through the Red Crescent in support of Turkey.
“I am preparing a big [international] meeting in Bulgaria”, Borissov said, without elaborating.
“On Monday I will meet with Erdoğan and will agree on his conditions. In the next days I will tell you what we will do here in Bulgaria to settle this problem long-term, about the migrants’ return, about the military actions in Syria, about the role of NATO”, Borissov said.
The Bulgarian prime minister has acted as Erdoğan’s advocate in the EU for many years. In 2018 he helped organise a high-level EU-Turkey meeting with Erdoğan, despite tensions over Turkish drilling in the Cyprus economic zone.