Hundreds of refugees amassed at Turkey’s border with Greece as president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Ankara had opened the gates to Europe.
Greek authorities used tear gas in a bid to deter people from crossing as Ankara sought to increase pressure on the EU and Nato after almost three dozen Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack in the Syrian province of Idlib, the last Turkish-supported rebel enclave.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the attack on Saturday, Mr Erdogan railed against European nations for failing to support Turkey, which is already home to more than 4m refugees. He warned that his nation would not accept a fresh influx of people from Idlib.
“Yesterday what did we do? We opened the gates,” he said in a speech in Istanbul. “In the period ahead, we will not close the gates. This will continue.”
Mr Erdogan said that, as of Saturday morning, around 18,000 people had crossed into Greece. That claim was rejected by Athens. “This is simply not true,” said a government spokesman.
The spokesman said that Greek police had arrested 66 people who entered the country overnight having evaded border patrols, adding that around 4,000 asylum seekers were gathered in a buffer zone between the Greek and Turkish checkpoints at midday on Saturday. “lt’s tense but calm at the moment,” he said.
Stelios Petsas, a Greek government spokesman, told reporters that Greece “will do whatever it takes to protect its borders”.
The rush to Turkey’s north-western borders began after Reuters news agency on Thursday night cited an unnamed Turkish official as saying that Turkey would no longer prevent refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea.
“All refugees, including Syrians, are now welcome to cross into the European Union,” the official said, according to the report, adding that police and border guards had been stood down. The statement then spread rapidly across Arabic-language social media.
The European Commission said on Friday that it had heard nothing from Turkish authorities to suggest they had diverged from a 2016 agreement to curb unofficial migration into the continent.
But Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s prime minister, said the country had increased border security after “significant numbers” of migrants and refugees had “attempted to enter the country illegally”. Bulgaria’s defence minister said it was prepared to send 1,000 troops to its border.
Omar Kadkoy, migration policy expert at Ankara-based think-tank Tepav, said that it was “not the first time that Turkey has utilised the card of refugees for support or political gains.” But he added that the ease with which refugees and migrants were being allowed to reach the border was “unprecedented”.
Mr Erdogan has faced mounting public discontent at the presence of millions of refugees in Turkey, the majority of whom are from Syria. Preventing more refugees from arriving was a key motivation for Ankara’s decision to deploy troops to Idlib to try to halt the Syrian regime’s latest advance in the opposition-held enclave.
The offensive by Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has forced 948,000 people to flee in the past three months, the UN estimates. Some 3m civilians are crammed into camps and overflowing towns by the Turkish border in north-west Syria.
“Turkey won’t be able to host all [of those who have fled in Idlib],” said Norbert Roettgen, head of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee. “Then what?”
Turkey’s calls for international help to create a buffer or no-fly zone in Idlib to halt bombardments by Syrian and Russian jets have not moved the EU and the US, which appear to have little appetite to provide military support.
“You feel in western policy circles that people are wishing Syria away,” said Emile Hokayem, senior fellow at the International Institute for Security Studies think-tank. By letting refugees head to the European border, “Erdogan is reminding them it’s everyone’s problem”.
Those refugees planning to head for the border on Friday included Firas, a 30-year-old Syrian who helped co-ordinate hastily organised bus convoys leaving the Turkish capital. “The government is turning its face away . . . maybe they want Europe to carry some of the refugees’ burden,” he said.
Firas said 22 buses had left and nine more were planned, but suggested that it was a race against time before Turkey locked down movement once again. “We only have 24 hours.”
For months the Turkish government has tightly restricted the movement of refugees between cities, with many Syrians fearful of being stopped and search. But on Friday, at one Istanbul departure point, several police officers in uniform stood nearby as families boarded buses.
“Syrians understand so well that they are being used as a weapon,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “People who are thinking about rushing towards the border . . . they say OK, everyone used us as pawns, at least in this case it could be to our benefit”.
European officials have long feared an exodus from Idlib could trigger a fresh spike of arrivals in the EU, further overloading already overcrowded Greek refugee camps.
The arrival in 2015 of more than 1m migrants on EU shores via dangerous land and sea routes prompted the bloc to strike a €6bn deal with Turkey under which Ankara agreed to prevent people crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece in exchange for humanitarian funding for refugees.
The deal was attacked by critics as an attempt to outsource EU’s refugee policy and opponents have been quick to cite the latest crisis as a another example of its failings.
“This once again goes to prove the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement is hardly a sustainable solution to the humanitarian crisis at the gates of Europe,” said Liam Patuzzi of the Migration Policy Institute Europe think-tank.
Additional reporting by Diego Cupolo in Istanbul, Sam Fleming and Michael Peel in Brussels, Guy Chazan in Berlin and Asmaa al-Omar in Erbil