As refugee numbers rise, Greece and Turkey face new border challenges

As Greece is trying to shield itself from new migrants, Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, is concerned about a new mass refugee influx from Idlib.
Saturday 07/09/2019
A search for a safe port. Refugees and migrants arrive at the port of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, September 3.(AP)
A search for a safe port. Refugees and migrants arrive at the port of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, September 3.(AP)

ISTANBUL - Greece and Turkey are ringing alarms as the number of refugees reaching Europe is on the rise and an immigration expert said there are no easy solutions.

When nearly 600 people arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos near the Turkish Aegean coast in one hour in late August, Greek Minister for Civil Protection Michalis Chrysochoidis raised the spectre of a new migrant crisis like the one in 2015 in which 850,000 refugees crossed to Greece from Turkey.

“If the situation were to continue we’d have a repeat of 2015,” Chrysochoidis was quoted as saying in news reports.

Turkey warned Europe that it could face another refugee crisis. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey expected EU support for the creation of a “security zone” in Syria to enable refugees to return to their country. If the safe zone does not happen, “we will be forced to open the doors. You either give support or, if you won’t, sorry, but we can only put up with so much,” Erdogan said.

Hundreds of people head to Greece from Turkey each week, despite a 2016 EU-Turkey deal that provides for new arrivals on the eastern Aegean islands to be deported to Turkey unless they are successful in their asylum application. The deal has left thousands of people stranded in dramatically overcrowded facilities on the islands, especially Lesbos.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis convened a National Security Council meeting to address the situation. Apart from a decision for an immediate transfer of nearly 1,500 people from Lesbos to the mainland, the council resolved to speed up the deportation of those whose asylum applications have been rejected.

The government announced increased border surveillance, the activation of a maritime surveillance system and the bolstering of the Greek Coast Guard’s fleet with ten new speedboats.

As Greece is trying to shield itself from new migrants, Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, is concerned about a new mass refugee influx from the Syrian province of Idlib, where forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad have been capturing territory from rebels with the help of Russia’s military.

Aid organisations and the United Nations said hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting. Many are fleeing towards the Turkish border, which has been closed to new arrivals.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the government was prepared to build refugee camps on the Syrian side of the border.

“An estimated 300,000, 800,000, 1 million people could migrate,” Soylu told the Haberturk broadcaster in late August. “We will keep them outside of our borders.”

Turkey is also wrestling with a growing number of refugees from Afghanistan who enter the country through the eastern border with Iran. Tehran said there are approximately 3 million Afghans in Iran. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said earlier this year that Afghans could be asked to leave if the United States continued its economic pressure on Iran.

Soylu said authorities picked up approximately 270,000 Afghan migrants lacking the necessary papers last year. He added that around 32,000 Afghans had been sent back to Afghanistan since the start of this year, after 28,000 deportation in 2018.

Figures by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicate that Afghan citizens form the biggest group of refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey. More than 6,000 Afghans have been registered in Greece since the start of the year. That is almost double the number of Syrians making the dangerous trip over the Aegean, UNHCR said.

The number of arrivals in Greece is low in comparison to what happened in 2015. UNHCR said approximately 34,000 people had crossed over to Greece since January, after around 50,000 did so in 2018. The total number for 2015 was almost 857,000.

Murat Erdogan, director of the Migration and Integration Research Centre at the Turkish-German University in Istanbul, pointed out that Afghans, unlike Syrians, did not enjoy temporary protection in Turkey.

“Syrians in Turkey are not very interested in going to Europe,” Erdogan said by telephone. “They know the risks of the sea journey and they know about the bad conditions in the camps” in Greece, he added. However, many Afghans struggled to get by in Turkey and risked deportation if caught by authorities.

Erdogan, who is not related to the Turkish President, voiced scepticism about Ankara’s plans to house Syrians in camps on Syrian territory. Even if a “safe zone” was established, questions about the returnees remain unanswered, he said. “Where will they work?” he asked. Also, he said: “Syrians do not want to go back.”

The government in Ankara is under pressure from voters to reduce refugee numbers in the country but Soylu, a hard-liner in the cabinet, admitted that even tearing up the refugee deal with the European Union to send people on to Europe would not be a solution.

“I would gladly open the doors so they can get to Europe,” Soylu told Haberturk, “but then Turkey will become a transit way for migration” to Greece. “Then terrorism will come in, drugs will come in, crime will come in,” he said.

Syrian activists in Turkey say a number of Syrian refugees have been deported to Idlib against their will, an assertion that the government in Ankara denies.