Since February 27, Turkish officials have sent busloads of migrants — predominantly young men from Afghanistan and Iran, according to several reports — to Turkey’s border with Greece. Pictured: Masked migrants throw rocks at Greek border guards along the fence at Pazarkulke border crossing in Edirne, Turkey, on March 7, 2020. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)
On February 27, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made good on his many threats to send millions of migrants and refugees to Europe, despite a 2016 deal between Europe and Turkey to hold them. Apparently seeking to make Europe experience the full force of his intentions, Turkish officials sent busloads of migrants — predominantly young men from Afghanistan and Iran, according to several reports — to Turkey’s border with Greece.
“We prepared a plan with our colleagues and we are committed to arranging free buses for the refugees in Bolu towards the border town of Edirne,” said Tanju Özcan, the mayor of Bolu, a town in northern Turkey, 550 kilometers from the border with Greece. “Refugees willing to go to Edirne can apply to the Bolu municipality and its branches. We are ready to assure the transport whatever the number [of refugees].”
In November, Erdogan had also threatened to release ISIS prisoners into Europe. Whether the migrants Erdogan sent to the border with Greece at the end of February currently include terrorists is not known. Migrating terrorists, research has shown, are a serious issue that seems to receive only scant attention in Europe.
In contrast to the migrant crisis of 2015, which saw more than a million migrants and refugees cross into Europe through Greece — as well as other frontline European nations — the current Greek government, which came into power in July 2019, has made it clear that its borders are closed.
“Welcome in Greece are only those we choose. Those who are not welcome will be returned. We will permanently shut the door to illegal human traffickers, to those who want to enter even though they are not entitled to asylum,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in November.
Even Germany is unwilling to take any of the migrants shuttled by Erdogan to the Greek-Turkish border. “I understand that Turkey is facing a very big challenge regarding Idlib,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated.
“Still, for me it’s unacceptable that he – President Erdogan and his government – is not expressing this dissatisfaction in a dialogue with us as the European Union, but rather on the back of the refugees. For me, that’s not the way to go forward.”
“We must not allow refugees to be turned into pawns for geopolitical interests,” announced German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “No matter who tries, they must reckon with our resistance.”
“Don’t go to the border. The border is not open. If someone tells you that you can go because the border is open… that is not true” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, reportedly said. He also noted that the European Union “will take all measures, in accordance with EU rules and International law, to make full respect of the integrity of its borders”.
President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, actually thanked Greece for being Europe’s “shield”:
“This border is not only a Greek border but it is also a European border. And I stand here today as a European at your side,” she told the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
“Turkey is not an enemy and people are not just means to reach a goal. We would all do well to remember both in the days to come. I thank Greece for being our European ‘aspida’ [the Greek word for shield].”
“As we have shown yesterday,” the European Commission’s vice-president for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, told reporters, “when Europe is tested, we are able to prove that we can hold the line and that our unity will prevail.”
On the face of it, the EU response appears to be a dramatic departure from the kind of talk that EU representatives normally present to the world on the topic of migration. As recently as on the UN’s International Migrants Day — which takes place every year on December 18 — the European Commission released a statement according to which:
“On International Migrants Day, we stand strong in our unequivocal commitment to respect and protect the dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants [bold in original] as well as to ensure that migration takes place in a safe, orderly and well-managed way… Openness and solidarity are core values of the European Union”.
Is it possible that even the highest functioning bureaucrats of the European Union have realized that Europe — or at the very least Greece — has reached its limit?
Probably not. As the chaotic situation on the border between Turkey and Greece indicates, the EU does not have anything resembling a coherent migration policy in place. This situation persists despite the fact that it has been five years since Europe experienced its worst migration scenario in modern times, and even though Erdogan has been threatening Europe with opening his borders for years. Rather, the “solidarity” with Greece expressed by leading EU representatives seems to have come from having no alternatives other than relying on Greece to struggle with the situation. Greece has asked the EU to send aid from Frontex – the European Border and Coast Guard Agency — to launch a rapid border intervention at its sea borders in the Aegean. Frontex has agreed and will ask the EU member states to provide personnel and equipment.
The only “policy” in place appears to be the one enshrined in the Dublin Regulation. According to it, the responsibility usually falls on the first EU member state in which asylum seekers set foot. The regulation, in the words of the former Greek Foreign Minister Georgios Katrougalos, “…brings all the weight of the crisis to the frontline countries of the European Union”.
EU member states are currently debating how to stop Erdogan from increasing the pressure on the Greek border and generating a migrant crisis comparable in size to the one in 2015. Whatever the EU decides on this matter, it will only amount to crisis management. Even if the EU manages to resolve its issues with Erdogan, which is doubtful and bound to be only temporary, Europe’s fundamental problem will remain:
As long as migrants think that a better future awaits them in Europe, the welfare states, which have shown themselves extremely accommodating in receiving migrants and granting them all sorts of social rights, can continue expecting migrants to try breaching Europe’s borders. International initiatives such as the UN’s International Migrants Day and the UN Global Migration compact, which praise migration as necessary and beneficial, certainly do nothing to dissuade migrants from trying. Expect the current migrant crisis to repeat itself many times over in the years to come.
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.