Turkey’s bid to use migrants as political leverage eclipsed by coronavirus

By Ilya U. Topper

Istanbul, Mar 29 (efe-epa).- The refugee camp on the border between Turkey and Greece lasted exactly one month.

It arrived accompanied by a great media fanfare but the migrants who gathered at the frontier have since dispersed without a whisper as Turkey’s bid to use them as leverage against the European Union flopped, eclipsed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Eurasian country, home to the largest volume of refugees in the world – some four million – has since 2016 received funds from the EU in exchange for reducing the number migrants crossing into Greece and, therefore, the Schengen Area.

This delicate balance collapsed in February when a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib province led to the deaths of 34 Turkish troops stationed there.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, frustrated by the lack of EU backing for his ambitions in Syria, decided to cast away his position of “Europe’s guardian” and gave free passage to the migrants and refugees, dreaming of a life in Germany, France or Sweden.

The vast majority of refugees in Turkey, some 3.6 million, are Syrians with permission to remain on Turkish soil indefinitely. Added to them are around 300,000 Iraqi refugees as well as Afghans and Iranians.

Turkey plays an important role as a transit route for other migrants, too, especially from Pakistan but also from several African countries.

The announcement from the Turkish government that it would open its borders to Europe prompted thousands to descend on the frontier city of Edirne. What appeared to be spontaneous was meticulously planned.

Less than two hours after a senior Turkish official announced the policy, news spread between Arabic social media users that people were to gather in central Istanbul, where they would be picked up by buses taking them to Edirne for free.

Those coaches, rented from a tourism company, did, indeed, show up, although no explanation was given as to who financed the operation.

In the days that followed, the pro-government Turkish press was full of headlines touting an “invasion” of refugees that would “fill the capitals” of Europe. Turkey’s interior minister provided daily updates on how many refugees had allegedly crossed the border.

Greek authorities had already closed the Pazarkule crossing, near Edirne, but Ankara said refugees were crossing via the Evros river, which runs 150 kilometers down the frontier.

However, according to the Turkish version of events and several witnesses, hardly any refugee was able to stay on the Greek side, all were intercepted and deported.

For several days, Turkish police ferried migrants in buses to different points along the border and encouraged them to cross, advice that was taken up by entire families who waded through the water with their suitcases full of belongings.

Despite reports that Greek police were charging at those trying to breach the frontier, messages encouraging people to head to the border continued to circulate on Arabic social media.

It’s hard to discern the role traffickers had to play in cooperating with authorities and fuelling the social media messages.

In any case, it was alarming to see some traffickers speaking to the media, without covering their faces, and claiming Erdogan had given them the green light.

The Bulgarian border was spared the crisis following a meeting between Erdogan and Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boiko Borisov.

Once it became clear that the threat of “invasion” had failed to prompt the EU into action, focus in the Turkish press turned to the alleged heavy-handedness of the Greek police.

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