Turkey’s sudden decision to open the gates to Europe for refugees exposes Ankara’s frustration over the lack of support and the failure of a distracted European Union (EU) to agree on a common migration policy, experts said.
Turkey announced last week it would not block the passage of refugees hoping to go to Europe amid the escalating violence in northwestern Syria, which could lead to a fresh influx of refugees fleeing the war-torn country through its southern border.
The move also threatens to unravel a deal Turkey signed with the EU in 2016 to stop the inflow of refugees to Europe in exchange for funds allocated to help Ankara deal with the millions of Syrian refugees it hosts.
Following the opening of the Turkish side of the border, which came after the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers by Syrian government’s air raids, thousands of refugees have crossed into neighbouring Greece, an EU member, causing violent clashes at the Pazarkule land border in Edirne province.
Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide: close to 4.1 million, including 3.7 million Syrians and nearly 400,000 asylum seekers and refugees of other nationalities such as Iranians and Afghans.
Migration experts agree that Turkey’s move is mainly motivated by the lack of international support to Turkey in dealing with the refugee crisis and by the mounting domestic pressure on the refugee issue.
“It is impossible for Turkey to assume the burden of the refugees its hosts on its own, and of another additional exodus from northern Syria, thus Ankara has taken an emotional decision and opened its borders in what can only be described as an act of desperation,” Didem Isci, an expert from the Ankara-based Bosphorus Migration Studies (BMS), told Xinhua.
Turkey aims to push the EU to finally act on the refugee crisis, a move that was generally hailed by the Turkish population, whose anti-refugee sentiment is rising amid a fragile economy, Isci said.
He added that, from the human rights’ aspect, Turkey’s decision could backfire.
“We came with 16 of our friends as soon as we heard that the border was open, but we have been pushed back for five days now by Greek riot police who shot tear gas canisters at nearly point blank,” an Iranian refugee, who only identified himself as Reza, told Xinhua at the Pazarkule border crossing.
“We want to go to Europe, and I still have hope to cross over, you can not live without hope,” Reza added.
In the past, Ankara had been accused of using Syrian refugees as as a tool of pressure in dealing with the EU. These accusations have been revived after Turkey recently launched its major offensive against the Russian-backed Syrian army, for which Ankara has sought the EU’s backing.
Turkey had threatened many times in the past to go ahead with such a move, accusing the EU of not fulfilling its promises, a dissatisfaction also admitted by the Europeans distracted by a messy Brexit that blocked an agreement on a new asylum system that would ease the burden on frontline sates, such as Greece.
“Greece has been left alone by other EU member states who are not particularly vulnerable by a migratory flow, a situation that has prevented the bloc to confront the issue,” Isci said.
In a statement on her Twitter account, European Parliament’s former Turkey rapporteur, Kati Piri, criticized the bloc for failing to fulfill its pledges made to Turkey.
Piri shared a long list of promises not kept by the EU, including the failure to implement a visa-free policy for Turkish citizens, even though it was supposed to be in place by the end of 2016.
She added that only 25,000 refugees have been resettled in three years, even though the deal promised large-scale resettlement in EU member states.
“Our generosity and hospitality toward Syrians has clearly been misinterpreted by the EU, we have done our fair share in hosting that many migrants, this couldn’t go on forever,” a Turkish source close to the government told Xinhua.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the bloc had not made “good use of the four years that passed since our (2016) agreement to find common ground for an efficient (asylum) policy.”
Turkish officials and TV commentators have criticized Greek border patrol’s moves to prevent refugees from entering the country by land and sea.
On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the EU must stop “trampling” on the rights of the migrants and must support Turkey in Syria if it wants a solution to the current refugee flow.
“Our Greek neighbors, who try all means to bar migrants like drowning them at sea or shooting them to death, shouldn’t forget that one day they might need the same mercy,” the Turkish leader said in a speech in the parliament.
Ankara is seeking EU’s support for establishing safe zones inside Syria to facilitate “voluntary returns” for the refugees it hosts, but such calls are ignored. Turkey controls swaths of land in northern Syria following three operations it carried out in recent years targeting Kurdish fighters.
On Tuesday, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said on Twitter that nearly 136,000 refugees had left Turkey for Greece, but the number has been strongly disputed by Greek authorities. Enditem