The Floodgates Open as Europe Finds Itself Underwater

After an increase in fighting in Syria late last month, Turkey abandoned its obligations under a 2016 agreement with the European Union. Now thousands of desperate migrants are seeking entry through Greece and Cyprus, inflaming tensions on the border while the EU juggles defending Schengen and other institutions from the coronavirus threat

At least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike in northern Syria on February 27th, kicking off a round of brutal combat in the region. Turkish officials blamed Syrian government forces, though most of the airstrikes were conducted by Russian jets. The next day, protesters chanted “Murderer Russia! Murderer Putin!” in front of the Russian Consulate in Istanbul. The country, however, has been hesitant to outright blame the Russian government for the incident, with the hope of avoiding direct confrontation with their mightier military.

The two nations have generally warm relations, but back opposing sides in Syria’s brutal and decade-long civil war. Thousands of Turkish troops are currently deployed to the Idlib province – home to three million people, including 1.5 million opponents of the Syrian government and 100,000 jihadists and rebels – in order to stem the advance of Russian forces. But Turkey is weakened by a lack of air support, with the opposition’s airstrikes killing over 300 people in the past three months and destroying schools, hospitals, and homes.

In response, Turkey has turned to the United States for help, asking it to supply Patriot missiles for defensive purposes. The country has also requested that NATO, of which it is a member, enforce a no-fly zone. But the US has refused to hand over the missiles until Turkey gives up use of its Russian S400 missile system. And NATO has declined engaging militarily in Syria, fearing that escalating the conflict could bring them to a head with Russia. Though the US has approximately 500 troops in the region, their mission is to prevent the reformation of the Islamic State and guard Syrian oil fields.

The attack against Turkey is an attack against NATO”, Omer Celik, the spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said on the CNN Turk news channel soon after the airstrike that killed troops. “NATO should have been with Turkey, not starting today but from before these events. We are expecting concrete actions on the safe zone and no-fly zone.”

Last week, Turkey and Russia agreed to a cease-fire, though it is unlikely to end the conflict. “We do not always agree with our Turkish partners in our assessments of what is happening in Syria, but each time at critical moments, relying on the achieved high level of bilateral relations, we have thus far managed to find common ground on the disputed issues that have arisen, and come to acceptable solutions”, said Russian President Vladimir Putin whilst standing alongside Erdogan. “That’s what happened this time too.”

Increased conflict in the region, as well as Turkey and Europe’s inability to come to the drawing board, has resulted in irrefutable damages. Turkey is no longer willing to take in more refugees, hold, or prevent them from fleeing into Europe, abandoning the deal Ankara struck with the EU in 2016, in which the former was offered billions of euros to block migration into the bloc.

Displaced Syrians have nowhere to go, and anti-refugee sentiment is also on the rise as the economy continues to stagnate. After recently making good on his threats to “open the gates”, Erdogan glibly called on Greece to do the same.

You should also open the gates and take a weight off your mind”, Erdogan said at a televised event. “After the latest developments in Idlib, Syria, we’ve given the refugees the opportunity to go where they’d like.”

Europe is mulling over closing its borders in response, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that “negotiating on the backs of the weakest” would not yield the desired result.

The Turkish President visited Brussels on March 9th to discuss the relationship with the European Union and the implementation of the migration agreement between the two entities. After the meeting, European Commission President Charles Michel announced in a press release that the council’s High Representative Josep Borrell and Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, have been tasked with clarifying positions and the execution of the deal.

Nowhere to Run

Turkey hosts nearly 4 million refugees, mostly from Syria, and has long agitated the EU to share the burden more equitably.

Now, tens of thousands of desperate people have hit Europe’s southern borders – further inflaming already present tensions. In places like Lesbos, the needs of desperate refugees are pitted directly against overwhelmed locals. Turkey has sent over 1,000 soldiers to the border to prevent Greece pushing migrants back.

In response, Greece has suspended asylum applications for the month – despite the UN commenting that there is no legal basis for this – and is deporting all migrants attempting to enter. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has defended the decisions, and on March 1st, a government spokesman said, “We stopped and protected our borders, which are also the EU’s borders.”

The EU has announced plans to enforce Greece’s southern borders, pledging 700 million euros in support and chiding Turkey for using desperate people as political pawns. Cyprus is sending some of its own security forces, and Frontex, the Union’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, will be working with Greece to deploy a rapid intervention team to land and sea borders. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean country is testing their new sea-fence – already widely criticised as a controversial and dubiously effective measure. This leaves Europe in a tight political situation, trying to toe the line between an already overwhelmed Greece and the needs of migrants.

“The EU is now paying the price for not having a functioning European migration policy even after years of negotiations”, claimed German paper Der Spiegel. “The EU countries left Greece alone with the arriving refugees. A moderate increase in their number was enough to bring the Greek reception system to the brink of collapse in July [2019].”

“Our first priority is making sure that order is maintained at the Greek external border, which is also a European border”, said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, also calling Greece a “shield” for Europe. “I also want to express my compassion for the migrants that have been lured through false promises into this desperate situation,” von der Leyen added.

But this is cold comfort to the desperate seeking refuge from chaos. One migrant has allegedly died in clashes with Greek police, and it was reported that a young child drowned on a capsized boat. But Greece has accused Turkey of spreading false news, and categorically denies the charge. The frontline nation has also accused Turkey of using tear gas against refugees on their side of the border to create chaos and give them the opportunity to breach.

“Turkey has become an official trafficker of migrants to the European Union, and Greece does not accept this situation”, said Mitsotakis. “The problem is an asymmetric threat and illegal invasion of thousands of people that threatens our territory.” Despite their desperation, only a few thousand refugees have succeeded in crossing Greece’s borders this past week. However, a rising sense of panic has given way to some vigilante violence.

Turkey has capitalised on the situation – cynically exploiting both migrant desperation and EU apprehension – and saying that if Europe was serious, they would join Turkey’s efforts in Idlib against Russian forces. It’s not a subtle manoeuver, but it works to put Europe in a tight spot. “All other approaches outside of this will move the European Union, which is already wallowing in the mire of xenophobia and racism, a little further from its own values”, said Erdogan.

The migration crisis in 2015 helped to catapult right-wing, eurosceptic parties across Europe, in part because the EU never managed to craft a policy for this kind of situation. The new wave threatens to give them an electoral boost that the EU can ill afford. Worse, thanks to the spread of coronavirus, mass migration is bringing fresh anxieties to the fore and giving right-wing nationalists more reason to pursue hard-line policies.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has announced that they have “indefinitely suspended access to border transit areas for asylum seekers” due to potential risks from the virus. “We observe a certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants”, said Gyorgy Bakondi, a national security adviser to Orbán. No such link has yet been explained, however, as the first two confirmed cases in Hungary were from Iranian students, not Syrian refugees.

Migrants are also making their way to Cyprus, and protestors and police have clashed at checkpoints closed due to coronavirus prevention measures. Closures between the Turkish-controlled northern part of Cyprus were announced on February 28th, and unrest first erupted the next day. Cyprus has no reported cases of Covid-19.

We need a new deal with Turkey”, said Gerald Knaus, who heads a small migration-focused think tank. But the 2016 agreement has only served to push the problem onto Turkey rather than resolve the underlying issues. And stopgap measures hastily rolled out are unlikely to do much to help stem the flow of migration. Meanwhile, allowing Greece to suspend asylum, even only for a month, chips away at the EU’s commitment to safeguard human rights. “If Greece can suspend the right to asylum, what stops Hungary from suspending the next basic right? Viktor Orbán saw in the refugee crisis a great opportunity to end the era of human rights, and we risk proving him right”, said Knaus.

The recent increase in fighting in Syria led to 33 Turkish fighters killed in an airstrike on February 27; most airstrikes in the region are conducted by Russia. Though the two nations back opposing sides in Syria’s brutal and decade-long civil war, they generally have warm relations and agreed to a cease-fire last week. Copyright: quetions123 /

Threats to Schengen

Europe is already facing turmoil thanks to the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, or covid-19. As the disease spreads, calls from populists and far-right eurosceptic parties to close the borders have grown louder. While this has yet to occur, the increased calls for suspending Schengen are eroding a prized EU institution.

The Schengen zone, named after a city in Luxembourg where the 1985 treaty was signed, is part of what makes the EU work by allowing the free movement of goods, labour, and people. Shutting the 26-nation, passport-free zone down – even temporarily – could create a massive snarl in Europe’s economic engine and erode the political unity of the continent. But it’s already been suffering a slow demise from a thousand cuts, including when some countries suspended it during the height of the migrant crisis of 2015.

Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and Norway are arguably abusing the system too. These countries have checked the passports of travellers arriving from other Member States for the past four and a half years and have used legal manoeuvres to circumvent the legal two-year limit on suspending Schengen.

Marie De Somer, the head of the migration programme at the Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre, believes that “Schengen is in a very poor and problematic state”. De Somer added that restoring the programme to its full functionality hinges on reforming the bloc’s asylum and migration rules – something the European Commission is eager to hammer out a plan for.

The commission also wants to bolster Frontex, the European Union Border Agency, by adding staff and funding and stepping up its operations at the bloc’s external borders. This would create a system for distributing asylum seekers among union members, however, and there are mixed responses. Hungary, for example, is likely to veto this plan. Germany believes all countries should take refugees whether they like it or not. Greece, already overwhelmed before the recent spike in violence in Syria and the concurrent rise in migrants seeking entry, wants asylum seekers already in the country to be taken out of detention centres. Meanwhile, Italy doesn’t want rescue boats to take refugees to its ports at all.

Experts caution that travel restrictions don’t really help to stop disease anyway. “Travel restrictions don’t work: people find another way around it, it might only slow the virus down”, said Dr. Clare Wenham of the London School of Economics Global Health Initiative. The WHO agrees that border restrictions are ineffective at best, and may “interrupt needed aid and technical support, may disrupt businesses and may have negative social and economic effects on the affected countries”.

But the facts don’t seem to matter. Whereas in 2015 the enemy was migrants, in 2020 the enemy is the migrants carrying the coronavirus, despite there being no evidence that it has come from migrants entering Europe.

“The government has underestimated the coronavirus”, said Matteo Salvini, the former Interior Minister of Italy, which has so far been the EU country hardest hit by the virus. “Allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.”

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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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