Turkey cynically pushes migrants toward coronavirus-hit Europe

Fanning the flames of Europe's coronavirus crisis, Turkey has been encouraging Syrian refugees, who lack health care, to congregate on the Greek border.

Syrian refugees that crossed the land borders between Greece and Turkey, are detained by Greek soldiers near the town of Soufli, Greece, March 4, 2020.  (photo credit: ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS/REUTERS)
Syrian refugees that crossed the land borders between Greece and Turkey, are detained by Greek soldiers near the town of Soufli, Greece, March 4, 2020.
Turkey has exploited the coronavirus crises to try to push migrants and refugees to Europe over the last few weeks.
European countries have been paying Ankara billions since 2015 to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey, but it opened the border with Greece and began encouraging migrants to storm the Greek border after Turkey lost soldiers in Idlib.
Turkey sought to distract from its losses in Idlib by creating a migrant crisis on the Greek border. In recent weeks, Turkish media have pushed populist messages of Turkish troops aiming rifles at Greece and Turkish drones flying over the border, while Ankara demands Berlin and Paris provide more cash to Turkey.
The misery of migrants at the border has now been compounded by coronavirus fears. While Turkey’s initial agenda was to distract from a crisis in Idlib, where a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive was pressing up against Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, the crisis on the Greek border now has a life of its own. International media, often wary of reporting in Turkey where dozens of journalists have been jailed, have come to report. Human rights groups have spotlighted Greece’s firing of tear gas and detaining of migrants.
The larger picture is that there are around four million Syrian refugees in Turkey. After hosting them for years, Turkey began coercing them in 2015 to go to Europe. In 2018, Ankara stopped accepting asylum seeker requests. Human Rights Watch slammed Turkey for unlawful deportations, coercing poor Syrians to return to conflict-ridden Syria, and denying health care.
Now the denial of health care takes on added dimensions amid the coronavirus pandemic. Turkey has concentrated refugees into areas along the Greek border as the coronavirus spreads in Greece. Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, which represents a pro-government view, said on Sunday that Greece has 38 new cases of coronavirus. It now has more than 228 cases, while Turkey says it has only six cases.
Turkey has also banned flights from Europe, saying nationals should return by March 17. It has suspended flights from Germany, Spain, France, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands until April 17. Flights are already suspended to China, Iran, Iraq, Italy and South Korea.
Turkey’s precautions about its own nationals in Europe are in stark contrast to its concentrating of vulnerable Syrians who lack health care at the border with Greece. Turkey is shoehorning refugees into Europe at a time when Europe is suffering a pandemic, which Ankara is aware of. Also, Turkey’s government and media are encouraging people to gather in crowds at a time when global health experts are recommending social distancing.
Turkey’s ambassador to the US was quoted by NBC as saying that it was “mission impossible” to prevent coronavirus in refugee camps in Syria, many of them in areas Turkey controls. Yet Ankara has offered coronavirus aid to Northern Cyprus, while apparently not offering it to Syrians.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to Northern Cyprus leader Ersin Tatar on Saturday. While Ankara encourages migrants to cross a border it opened with Greece, it has closed the border with Georgia and suspended air and road transportation to Azerbaijan due to the coronavirus outbreak. This appears hypocritical, since Turkey has also built a wall along the border with Syria and denied the 900,000 people who fled a Syrian regime offensive the ability to cross from Idlib. Turkey has closed all its borders with other states and seeks to aid Northern Cyprus and return its citizens from Europe, while encouraging Syrians to leave for Europe and opening the border for Greece just so they will leave.
This policy of Ankara now has major ramifications. Germany’s leader Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron have been summoned by Turkey to a video conference call to get them to give Turkey more money so it will close the border. Erdogan, has called Greece a "Nazi country" for not accepting the refugees and continues to threaten Europe that it will encourage migrants to cross the border if the European Union doesn’t pay up.
Merkel and Macron will hold their call with Erdogan on March 17, a face-to-face meeting precluded by the coronavirus precautions and the overall pandemic disaster that is unfolding in France and Germany. However, the situation on the border with Turkey and Greece now may fan the flames of the virus.
Austria, Poland and other states have sent forces to Greece to keep the refugees and migrants out. Instead of working with Athens and the EU to aid refugees at a time when coronavirus poses a real threat to them, it appears that Turkey will focus on aiding Northern Cyprus and Turkish citizens, and continuing to perpetuate the crisis with Greece.