Refugees become 'toys' in standoff between Turkey and Europe

Greek government spokesman attacked Ankara over the situation.
Saturday 07/03/2020
Migrants arrive at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing on a dinghy the Aegean sea from Turkey on Monday, March 2. (AFP)
Pressure politics. Migrants arrive at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing on a dinghy the Aegean sea from Turkey on Monday, March 2. (AFP)

PAZARKULE - Two years ago, Ensar travelled from Afghanistan via Pakistan and Iran to Turkey in search of a better life. Following two years of working in a bakery in the western Turkish town of Balikesir to get by, the 19-year-old heard in February that the Turkish government was no longer keeping refugees from going to Europe. He packed his bag and made his way to the Pazarkule crossing point on the Turkish land border with Greece.

Now he is stuck, like thousands of other refugees in Pazarkule, just outside the city of Edirne in north-western Turkey. Greek border guards have closed the crossing.

“I am not going back,” Ensar, who gave his first name only, said March 1. “I have to get over there somehow and I will stay here until that happens.”

Ensar said he and others at Pazarkule were sleeping in the open despite freezing temperatures. “What else can we do?” he asked.

Days later, refugees were still going nowhere in their attempt to get through the border fence. Turkey deployed an elite police force to prevent Greek border guards from pushing back migrants but the deployment added to a sense of hopelessness among refugees, some of whom said they were told by Turkish authorities to cross over to Greece, only to be repelled by Greek troops.

Mohammad Omid, an Afghan who has been at the border for five days with his wife, told the Associated Press that Turkish police told him to go to there.  “We don’t know what is happening. We are like toys to them,” he said in the border town of Edirne. “We are like a ball to them. Everyone passes us to this side and the other side. I don’t know what will happen to us.”

Refugees began gathering at the Pazarkule crossing February 28 after word spread on social media that Turkey was no longer preventing them from leaving the country.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed on February 29 that he had “opened the gates,” accusing the European Union of failing to live up to a 2016 agreement that included European financial help for Ankara in return for a pledge by Turkey to prevent refugees from crossing to Greece. The move to open the border is seen as an effort by Turkey to pressure EU governments over the Syrian conflict across its southern border.

Ankara said Turkey, a country hosting more than 3 million Syrians and hundreds of thousands of migrants from other countries, cannot shoulder the burden alone anymore. The government expressed concern that the crisis in the Syrian province of Idlib could send up to 1 million additional refugees into Turkey at a time many Turks say the Syrians should go home.

A week after throwing the border gates open, Turkish authorities reported a drop in attempted crossings. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said approximately 142,000 migrants had travelled to the border since February 28, an increase of 6,000 in two days. About 136,000 were counted in the first days after February 28.

Soylu also told Turkish media that Erdogan instructed him to stop boats carrying migrants crossing the Aegean to Greek islands because of the danger that women and children could drown. Greek media reported that 58 migrants arrived on Turkish islands in the 24 hours before March 6. Just days earlier, the United Nations said more than 600 migrants a day had made the journey.

Greek and Turkish security forces deployed tear gas March 6, witnesses said, sending large plumes of smoke above the Kastanies-Pazarkule border crossing. Some migrants dabbed stinging eyes with water. Other trekked through fields seeking chinks in the well-guarded frontier.

Ankara’s move rattled Europe, which was shaken by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in 2015, an influx that was stopped by the 2016 agreement.

Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas attacked Turkey over the situation.

“Turkey, rather than controlling the migrant and refugee trafficking rings, has itself become a trafficker,” he said in a statement March 1. Petsas added that Turkey was using the people gathered at the border as “pawns” to exercise diplomatic pressure.

Greek countermeasures, including water cannon and tear gas, prevented many migrants from leaving Turkey. The European Union backed Greece by promising $780 million in aid and called on Turkey to revise its decision to let the migrants travel towards Greece because the EU border would remain closed to them.

“The news about the alleged openness (of the Greek-Turkish border) is false and people should not try to move there,” EU top diplomat Josep Borrell said during a meeting of EU foreign ministers March 6 in Croatia.

The European Union could offer more money to Ankara beyond the $6.7 billion pledged in the 2016 deal to help the refugees but Turkey must first stop using them as a “bargaining chip,” he said.

Many refugees at Pazarkule appeared to be from Afghanistan.

“I am not allowed to work in Turkey and have to be afraid of the police all the time,” said a young Afghan man who had travelled to the border region in a taxi from Istanbul with his wife and young daughter.

While Syrians enjoy provisional protection in Turkey, Afghans are considered illegal migrants and face deportation. Turkish authorities stopped detaining Afghans since the decision to open the border in late February.