Europe, Top Stories

As Erdoğan Weaponizes Turkey’s Migrants, Greece Pays the Price

Thousands of migrants and refugees have massed at the Greek-Turkish border, attempting to pass into Europe. Europe got a first test of what it would look like if Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan makes good on his February 28th declaration to open the floodgates and deluge the EU with a new wave of asylum seekers.

Last week, Turkish forces suffered heavy military losses in Syria, where Erdoğan has been pursuing an increasingly aggressive policy. He now is looking for a ceasefire in Idlib, site of the latest Turkish intervention and the last significant outpost of resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. Erdoğan’s announcement regarding asylum-seekers seemed aimed not only at pressuring other countries to support his shifting war aims, but also at diverting attention away from a Syrian military quagmire into which Erdoğan recently poured 7,000 fresh troops.

In a brazen attempt to weaponize the migrant crisis, the country’s officials have begun providing free transport to thousands of refugees seeking entry into Greece. Lest anyone miss the message, Friday’s mini-exodus was broadcast live on Turkish television. Harried people were shown heading to the borders by bus, taxi, and on foot.

Over the weekend, Greece’s land borders with Turkey predictably turned into a border-enforcement battlefield, with skirmishes breaking out between westbound asylum-seekers and Greek police and soldiers. A Greek government spokesman called it “an organized mass attempt to violate Greece’s land and sea borders,” and accused Turkey of facilitating people-smuggling. On Sunday, a young child drowned after a boat capsized during a sea crossing—the first death since Turkey opened its border.

The situation signals a new phase in the European migration crisis, which has gradually moved off the front pages since 2016, when a deal between the EU and Turkey was struck, and the countries along the Balkan route to the north largely shut down their borders. It also signals the first major crisis faced by Greece’s conservative New Democracy government since it came to power in July.

The real danger for Europe will be if the battle raging for the last rebel holdout in Syria unlocks a fresh wave of refugees, and the Turkish leader also opens the border with Syria.

Greek authorities say they intercept around 10,000 attempts per day at various spots along the 120-mile border, parts of which are now blocked with barbed wire. Greece’s police and army also have made extensive use of tear gas to disperse migrants, who were throwing stones and even burning wood. According to the Greeks, some migrants are themselves armed with tear gas canisters that they suspect were provided by sympathetic Turkish officials.

In addition, Greece has used various non-violent means to repel asylum-seekers, using text messages and loudspeakers to warn them to remain in Turkey. “Do not attempt to enter Greece illegally, you will be turned back,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted on Sunday. “The borders of Greece are the external borders of Europe. We will protect them.” He also has requested the deployment of the EU’s Frontex’s rapid border-intervention team to supplement Greece’s own security forces.

It is unclear how many thousands of people are gathered these days at border crossing points and how many are trapped in the no-man’s land between the two countries. Turkey’s interior minister Süleyman Soylu said on Twitter that more than 100,000 migrants had left Turkey on Sunday via the Edirne border crossing. But the International Organization for Migration has estimated the number at only 15,000, at least for now.

The situation was much better on Tuesday morning, with the vast majority of the refugees having stepped back to the Turkish city of Edirne. Greek officials fear an even further rise of arrivals on the Greek islands, where it is more difficult to control the flows.

As for Erdoğan, he seems intent on fanning fears of an almost biblical sweep of humanity into Europe. “After we opened the doors, there were multiple calls saying ‘close the doors,’” he reportedly said on Monday. “I told them it’s done. It’s finished. The doors are now open. Since we have opened the borders, the number of refugees heading toward Europe has reached hundreds of thousands. This number will soon be in the millions.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called on Greece to refrain from the use of excessive or disproportionate force, and to maintain systems for handling asylum requests in an orderly manner. But Turkey’s move has helped sap whatever humanitarian spirit remains in Greece. The Greek government announced on Sunday that it will no longer be accepting any new asylum applications for a month, while migrants will be returned immediately if possible without being registered. The country invoked Article 78.3 of the EU treaty “to ensure full European support” and to trigger provisional emergency relocation measures.

“Neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provides any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications,” it added, with the caveat that article 78.3 “cannot suspend the internationally recognized right to [asylum] emphasized in EU law.”

The situation could escalate further. Greek authorities say that thousands more migrants are reportedly gathering along the Turkish coastline, waiting to cross the Aegean Sea. More than 1,000 already have arrived on Aegean islands since Sunday morning. Camps there are already overpopulated, and the locals’ tolerance was exhausted long ago.

On Tuesday morning, the Greek Prime Minister visited the Evros region, on the north-east coast of the Aegean, with the presidents of the European Council, European Commission, and European Parliament, in a show of support for Athens. And an informal EU foreign ministers’ meeting is scheduled for Friday. But based on precedent, Greek officials are skeptical that any concrete action will come of it. The 2016 deal on migrants struck between the EU and Turkey was supposed to be part of an emergency solution, a temporary fix that would give European member states time to agree on a joint approach on migration issues more generally. But four years later, little progress has been made. The drop in migrant numbers gave EU policymakers the political room they needed to pretend the problem didn’t exist anymore. Thanks to this inaction, the EU will have to respond late to this follow-up crisis, too.

Erdoğan’s stunt is aimed not only at pressuring Europe, but sowing divisions among its member states: He hopes that Europe will appease him as a means to yet again avoid a definitive solution to the migration crisis. But EU leaders should remember that such a short-term fix would only ensure that these scenarios repeat themselves in the future, and that teeming masses of displaced and impoverished refugees and migrants will continue to be used as pawns.


Nektaria Stamouli is a journalist based in Athens, Greece. Follow her on Twitter at @nstamouli.

Featured image: Migrants and refugees block a road outside port of Lesbos, on March 3, 2020, amid a migration surge from neighbouring Turkey after it opened its borders to thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP) 


  1. We shouldn’t call it wrong or poor crisis handling, these problems with fugitive and other illegal migrants at the European south borders (far away from the rich north west, but quite close for many of them), but rather “no ruling at all”, if we may believe European Commissionary Vincent Stuer. Bruxelles simply is not capable to strike a deal (apart of paying Erdogan to keep them in camps on his territory). The problem: Europe is not a nation, with responsibily for their sovereign borders, neither an empire, like the Ottoman or the Habsburg one. So, nobody feels sufficiently responsible. How will this develop, with all those international human rights without a responsible and decisive Europe? BTW, the fugitives at the Greek border are not only Syrians, noho!! which makes it even more complicated. And now again this Corona allover (not related, but yet). How will the year end?

    BTW, Greece is not the only nation with a border with Turkey, Bulgaria is another one,also a European nation, almost same distance and same traject, but nobody seems to intrude there, whereas the Greek border is heavily protected by armed police forces, why?

  2. It has always struck me that Schengen’s border defence hasn’t become a common effort. Yes, there’s Frontex, but it is a rather small organisation and as far as I know its focus is on special missions. In Italy there’s been quite some bitterness in the past years that the burden of protecting the Schengen border in the Mediterranean has fallen mostly onto the Italian coast guard.

  3. There are several reasons why Bulgaria isn’t getting the migrant wave that Greece is getting.

    One is that Bulgaria treats migrants significantly worse. It is a matter of incentives. In choosing a place to go, “place where they throw you into prison” is not a desirable choice.

    Another is that Erdogan is not targeting Bulgaria the way he targets Greece. Borissov has an agreement with Erdogan, so Erdogan does not send the migrants to the Bulgarian border.

    Of course, there are also Bulgarian troops guarding the border.

  4. This is an invasion. It must be stopped, by any means necessary. Greek troops are now using live ammo. That’s going to be necessary.

  5. Anyone else notice that all the refugees in the photo are late teen or twenty something males? There is one grey head in the background.

  6. Poor little once great Greece: where Europe began, where Europe will end.

  7. Some 10 yrs ago, an “Arabic Spring” took place in Tunesia, followed by another few in North Africa and Middle East. I remember the general approval and sympathy at the time for the people over there, tired of their totalitarian regimes. There seems to have been even active European support for these “revolutions”. We are 10 years further now, and very little of that original enthousiasm has remained. My God, if only we compare that peace and order at the borders, under those undemocratic regimes, with what we have right now! How to proceed?? Less idealism and belief in universal values?

  8. And Mohamir Qaddafi, dictator/strong man of Libya, stated that he was the only thing standing between the hordes of Africa and the EU. He appears to have been completely correct about that. Libya is now an anarchy, with packs of wolves occasionally stopping the hordes of Africa by basically enslaving them, and sometimes letting the traffickers send out boats.

  9. I think most people would agree with you, since what you’re pointing out is simply the law: you cannot cross a border illegally. However, the problem has been: (1) how do you protect the Schengen border (especially in the island area) and (2) how do you deal with faits accomplis, i.e. what do you do when tens of thousands of migrants have made it to Lesbos, Lampedusa, etc.

    Purely ideologically, I don’t support borders, but purely ideologically, I also don’t support the welfare state as we know it in Europe. And if you create the latter, you have to create (and defend) the former.

  10. Absolutely, pulling Qadaffis Libya down was a grand strategical blunder…

  11. Europe needs to set aside their wokeness for a moment and accept the fact they are facing an existential threat. Even if Muslim migration (legal and illegal) were to be halted entirely, in 30 years Muslims will make up about 7.4 % of the European population. If legal and illegal migration continue, Europe will be 14 % Muslim, according to Pew. These projections assume the 50 % or so of asylum seekers whose claims are denied will leave, an unlikely scenario, so Europe could easily end up with a far higher Muslim population. Of course countries like France, Sweden and the UK will be much more affected than Poland and Hungary.

    This kind of radical demographic shift is a recipe for instability. The Christian and Muslim world has been at war for centuries, and the move away from Christianity and towards secular humanist principles has only accentuated the chasm between those two cultures. In the last decades, Europe has built societies reliant on a productive populace and strong social fabric. Introducing people who lack the skills to be valuable in the European economy and who have backwards attitudes towards women and children is destroying the social safety net Europeans have paid dearly for, as well as their more immediate sense of safety in affected neighborhoods.

    How would you feel about being a low income worker taxed at 50 % so that unemployed and unemployable Ahmed down the street can afford his 6th baby from his child bride? What if all you have to show for your generosity is rising rape statistics and politicians and media elites calling you racist for pointing it out?

    Do you want ethnic cleansing? Because this is how you get ethnic cleansing. Either Europeans will eventually overcome leftist suppression and reclaim their countries with an ugly explosion of violence, or Muslims will take ownership of Europe and do what they always do in countries they conquer.

    The window for a relatively peaceful solution is closing. Europe needs to send as many Muslim migrants and asylum seekers home as possible, and drastically restrict access to social services to the rest, to induce them to leave on their own or at least dissuaded them from having a huge number of children.

    Europe can ban the niqab and attempt indoctrination of Muslim toddlers all they want, but as Canada learnt with Natives and residential schools, you cannot strip people of their culture and you will only cause more problems for yourself if you try. The European fantasy you can assimilate so many people in the next 20 to 50 years is a dangerous pipedream. Particularly when Muslims are proud of their culture and Europeans increasingly hate theirs. Europeans need to get real or there will be genocide in Europe by the end of the century.

  12. Upon first being elected, Barack Obama’s first overseas trip was to Cairo, where he addressed a large crowd and gave a nice speech.

    It was a classic meeting of US idealism on the global stage, in this case the Middle East, where the Democratic narrative told us ‘killing terrorists only creates more terrorists’ .

    Indeed, the term ‘Islamic Terrorist’ was smitten from popular vocabulary. Once again the use of language by the US western marxists came into play.

    Democratic Party idealism has a play in the USA. But as soon as it gets aired outside the lower 48, all hell breaks loose.

    Obama encouraged his muslim audience to embrace hope. The Taliban then asked one of their US hostages " is Obama gay?"

    Fast forword to the Arab Spring. The US encouraged and then permitted change in Egypt, that lead to the Muslim Brotherhood taking power, much to the chagrin of the Grand Mufti in KSA. Next it was Libya, and US airpower pushing back Qaddafi as he marched on Benghazi. Finally the Syrians rose up, thinking they too could count on Obama. But by then Barack had had enough.

    Many will say Bush’s invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign policy blunder in recent history.

    IMO Barack Obama has more unjust blood on his hands than any Western leader since…hmmm…still thinking…since…ever. More than Kennedy for Vietnam. More than Carter for loosing Iran. More than any US president.

    We see Erdogen’s antics as a seperate event, but it isnt. These hoards invading Europe are a continuation of the instability caused by a naive and reckless Democratic President, one with a great smile and smooth talking manner. One who got millions killed and wounded and uprooted.

  13. You are probably closer to the truth than am I.

  14. Australia used to get a lot of boat people, but when they started letting them drown out there and putting infiltrators on prison islands, the migrants stopped coming. It’s tough to stomach, but if migrants know that they are risking their life for no reason, that they will never be allowed into Australia, they will stop coming, and in the long run less will die. Currently about 3000 migrants a year die on the Mediterranean.

  15. You are begging the question here. You are asserting something you need to prove. I can tell that you believe what you say, but that’s not the standard that you need.

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