Brussels has called an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers as Turkey’s escalating conflict with the Syrian regime risks creating a new refugee crisis.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, said that the fighting around the province of Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held enclave, represented “a serious threat to international peace and security” and that the EU had to “redouble efforts to address this terrible human crisis with all the means at its disposal”.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, declared on Saturday that his country had “opened the gates” to the EU for the 4m refugees currently living in Turkey as he sought to pressure Europe into providing Ankara with greater support in Idlib.
More than 50 Turkish soldiers have been killed since the start of February as Ankara has sought to resist a Russian-backed offensive by forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Regime gains have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee north towards the Syrian-Turkish border, which remains closed.
Mr Erdogan has warned that his country cannot take any more people and has clamoured for international support. Having not received it, Turkish officials signalled on Thursday that they would no longer stop refugees from seeking to reach Europe.
The situation is a test of a refugee deal Turkey struck with the EU in 2016 that has limited the flow of irregular migrants and asylum seekers into Greece in exchange for refugee funding from European countries.
The agreement contributed to a vast reduction in the number of migrant arrivals into the EU compared with the peak of the refugee crisis. New arrivals numbered fewer than 125,000 last year, compared with over 1m in 2015.
Mr Borrell said he had called the meeting, which will take place during the coming week, “in particular at the request” of the Greek government, whose refugee camps and reception facilities are already at breaking point.
Greek police said that, within a few hours of Mr Erdogan’s statement on Sunday morning, at least 500 people had arrived by sea at the chain of Greek islands close to Turkish territory.
Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted on Sunday that the country’s national security council had decided to “increase the level of deterrence at our borders to the maximum. As of now we will not be accepting any new asylum applications for 1 month.”
“The borders of Greece are the external borders of Europe. We will protect them,” he wrote.
The UN’s International Organisation for Migration estimated this weekend that around 13,000 people — including Syrian, Afghan, Iranian, and Pakistani migrants, among others — were gathered at various points along the Greek-Turkish border.
There were reports on Sunday that Greek police had resorted to using tear gas to repel people seeking to cross over. Greek authorities sent a text message to cell phones in the border area warning people not to enter the country illegally.
“We continue to follow closely the migration situation at our external borders,” Mr Borrell said in his statement. “The EU-Turkey Statement needs to be upheld,” he said in reference to the 2016 deal.
EU diplomats have long acknowledged the bloc’s lack of influence in the Syria conflict and that member states have limited tools to respond to the deepening crisis there.
European countries have resisted Russian pressure to normalise relations with the Assad regime in Syria and release large-scale reconstruction funds, although Hungary has upgraded its diplomatic presence in Damascus.
One EU official said one main purpose of this week’s emergency meeting should be to shore up unity on Syria policy and the response on migration — and to “make sure panicky individual member states don’t go off on tangents”.
Ministers are also likely to review humanitarian support and migration response support for Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, measures which closely involve the European Commission.
Bulgaria’s defence minister has said the country is prepared to send 1,000 troops to its border.
Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, said on Sunday that it was “in close contact with Greek authorities regarding additional support we can provide”.
The agency said on Twitter that it was “redeploying equipment and additional officers to Greece and closely monitoring the situation”.