EuropeForeign PolicyGreeceMigrationPolitics

Tension Builds Between Greece and Turkey, Amid Surge of Migrants on Greece’s Shores

Greece and Turkey play political football, as Greece tries to deport a wave of new migrants back to Turkey, who in turn threatens to shepherd more than a million refugees from Syria and Afghanistan to Greece’s shores

Germany’s Interior Minister called for Greece to expedite migrant deportations back to Turkey and to stem the tide of migration into Greece, and onwards throughout Europe. Stephan Mayer, the parliamentary secretary of the Interior Ministry, has said there needs to  be a more “comprehensive implementation” of the 2016 EU-Turkey migration pact as part of these efforts. Simultaneously, Turkey has threatened to “open the gates” and send more than one million refugees into Europe if the EU does not provide “adequate international support” for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to create a “safe zone” in Syria.

Turkey currently controls part of northern Syria, and claims over 350,000 Syrians have returned there, despite the fact that most Syrians come from elsewhere in the country. It is in that northeast area that Turkey seeks to set up a safe zone, with cooperation from the EU and the USA, all the while a Russian-backed government offensive continues to press northward. The proposed safe zone is part of an agreement with the USA to help reduce tension between Turkey and the US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria that Turkey considers terrorists.

“Our goal is for at least one million of our Syrian brothers to return to the safe zone we will form along our 450 km border”, Erdoğan said in a speech. “Give us logistical support and we can go build housing at 30 km (20 miles) depth in northern Syria. This way, we can provide them with humanitarian living conditions.”

“This either happens or otherwise we will have to open the gates”, Erdoğan threatened. “Either you will provide support, or excuse us, but we are not going to carry this weight alone. We have not been able to get help from the international community, namely the European Union.”

Erdoğan also pointed out that his partners in Syria, Russia and Iran, had failed to take on sufficient responsibility for peace in the war-torn region ahead of three-way talks between his Russian and Iranian counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, due to take place in Ankara.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis responded, saying “Mr. Erdoğan must understand that he cannot threaten Greece and Europe in an attempt to secure more resources to handle the refugee (issue)”, adding that a mutually beneficial discussion to solve the issue cannot happen when Greece is receiving “threats” and “bullying” behavior.

Erdoğan plans to pursue the matter during a UN General Assembly meeting in New York City next week, where he is also expected to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Why Now?

Since 2016, inflows associated with the European migrant crisis have slowed down significantly. And yet, a new wave is now gathering strength. Late in August, more than a dozen migrant boats carrying 600 people from Syria and Afghanistan arrived on Greek shores, the first simultaneous arrival of its kind in three years. While nowhere near peak migration levels seen in 2015, Greece – and the rest of Europe – is anxious that a new wave is on the horizon, especially if Turkey urges refugees onward by making life untenable within its own borders.

People are pouring in“, said professor of political science Cengiz Aktar of the University of Athens. “On three of the biggest (Greek) islands, the refugee population has surged dramatically compared to the numbers of local people living there.” According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 8,100 migrants arrived at the Greek islands in August.

In fact, there is speculation that Turkey allowed this group to reach Greece, turning a blind eye to smugglers, precisely to stoke feelings of urgency in Europe – a charge that Turkey denies. But Turkey’s Coast Guard is usually fairly active in the waters via which the boats travelled, and they did not respond to repeated Greek requests for intervention, according to Refugee Rescue, a private lifeboat organisation that helps migrants adrift at sea.

Within Syria, fighting has renewed in Idlib, the last rebel-held province, and where Turkey has stationed troops. In 2017, Turkey, Russia, and Iran agreed to reduce fighting in the area, but that truce has fallen apart as the Russian-backed Syrian government forces gain ground against the rebels, some of whom are armed by Turkey. The uptick in conflict has Turkey spooked, wary of a new wave of refugees fleeing to their safer borders.

This means it is unlikely that many refugees can safely settle in the northeast area, even if Turkey gets the concessions it wants. But the real goal is internal political stability for Turkey. Nicholas Danforth, Istanbul-based senior visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said Erdoğan’s sabre-rattling about the safe zone allows him to pressure both the EU and the USA simultaneously. “What seems clear is that it would be impossible to settle that many refugees in any zone achieved through negotiations with the United States and the YPG”, explained Danforth. “This looks like an attempt to build pressure for more US concessions on the safe zone, where some refugees could then be resettled for purposes of domestic (Turkish) public relations.”

Professor Aktar does not see much chance of success for Turkey’s planned safe zone. “The European leaders will not support Erdoğan’s plan. It has zero chance. This is going back to the Middle Ages. You just can’t take territory to place refugees there under military occupation. This is not feasible or sustainable.”

“We’re Full”

Greece’s new centre-right government has vowed to take a tougher stance against migration than its left-wing predecessor, and has held emergency talks on how to better coordinate responses with Turkey in advance of swelling migration numbers. Greece is already overwhelmed, with over 70,000 refugees and migrants, including more than 22,700 on Greek islands ferried there by traffickers operating out of Turkey.  So far, only 1,904 people (about 1 percent of the total) have been deported to Turkey, while the 24,348 Syrians who arrived in Europe via Turkey, before borders were closed, have been settled in EU countries.

“We cannot allow some EU members to whistle nonchalantly on the subject of solidarity between member states while enjoying the full benefits of Schengen,” shares Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis. Copyright: Alexandros Michailidis /

Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis wants the EU to share more of the burden. “We cannot allow some EU members to whistle nonchalantly on the subject of solidarity between member states while enjoying the full benefits of Schengen”, Mitsotakis said, referring to the open borders agreement between most of the EU members. “I shall propose that if a country wants to enjoy Schengen, it must agree with common decisions or there have to be consequences.”

Greece has also announced the intent to simplify its asylum procedure, accusing the previous Syriza administration of creating an “absurd … unique, complicated” legal framework for asylum, leading to “endless recycling of asylum applications”. However, many human rights groups are concerned that this means an increased risk for refugees.

That’s because many lawyers believe this means reforms that would likely abolish the appeals process that allows rejected asylum seekers a second chance. This appeals system is mandatory under EU and international humanitarian law. Instead, the suggested reforms would pass that burden onto already overloaded administration courts. The Appeals Authority, created in 2016 as part of the Greek Asylum Service, has heard more than 36,000 denials, overturning about 3 percent of them. The current ruling party New Democracy created the Asylum Service in 2013, and clamoured for the Appeals Authority when still in opposition.

“The possible transfer of these cases to the administrative courts will … greatly overburden them, which has consequences for the speed and efficiency of their overall performance”, a statement from the Administrative Judges’ Union said. “Changing the system won’t speed things up and it will probably lead to a lessening of rights for refugees”, says Vasilis Papadopoulos, head of legal research at the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), a leading legal aid charity.

The View From Turkey

Turkey currently hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world and about four times the amount hosted in Europe. Tensions today ultimately stem from a controversial deal hammered out in March 2016 between Turkey and the EU that has contributed significantly to prevent refugees from reaching Europe by keeping them within Turkish borders. The price was a 6 billion euro aid package along with other political bonuses for Turkey. But keeping Syrian refugees in Turkey relies on ensuring the country is a “safe third country”, a status that is heavily in doubt as Turkey seems to disrespect refugee rights and the principle of non-refoulement. The EU was also supposed to resettle 72,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey, but has so far taken in less than a third of that number. Erdoğan also claims that the EU hasn’t paid up the entire sum it pledged, and that the promised aid is insufficient compared to the magnitude of money and resources Turkey has laid out in aiding refugees.

While most of the promised EU funds went to education, healthcare, and refugee support, some of the money also went towards transfer centres, where conditions are overcrowded and the food is insufficient, spoilt, or both. It’s where many more may end up, as Erdoğan announced that Syrians with paperwork have until October 30th  to leave Istanbul, and those without papers will be taken to camps to be registered. One senior anonymous EU official estimated that about 2,200 people were already sent to Idlib, though it was unclear how many of those were deported or returned voluntarily. Were Turkey forcibly deporting Syrians, this would be in explicit violation of the principle of non-refoulement, a key condition of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal.

Kati Piri, the EU Parliament’s former Turkey rapporteur, said that “In this way, the EU becomes co-responsible for human rights violations…Violations against refugees may have decreased on European soil, but that’s because we outsourced them. It’s a sign of Europe’s moral deficit, which deprives us from our credibility in holding Turkey to account.”

Many within Turkish society feel their country has done enough for Syria, and deserves more robust support from the EU. With an economy only recently out of recession and many Turks struggling to make a living, hostility toward Syrians, Afghanis, and other refugees – who they see as living off their largesse – is on the rise. A recent poll found that Turkish citizens who expressed unhappiness with Syrian refugees rose to 67.7 percent this year, from 54.5 percent in 2017.  As in Europe, opposition parties in Turkey are gaining an edge by whipping up anti-refugee sentiment. During municipal elections earlier this year, the secular CHP party ran explicit anti-Syrian campaign messages, having since cut municipal aid for refugees, and even bandied about anti-Syrian hashtags on social media.

“Erdoğan’s recent comments on unleashing a new refugee wave are a product of his growing frustration with the huge number already in Turkey”, said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research group. “It is unlikely that there is a fully thought-through master plan ready for implementation.”

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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