Refugees clutched the ground and hugged one another as at least one child cried openly after their inflatable dinghy arrived at the Greek island of Lesbos from Turkey at the end of February.
Thousands of migrants have tried to enter Greece from Turkey since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the Turkish coast guard and border officials not to stop people from illegally crossing into Europe last week. Many are trying to dash across the border crossing at Pazarkule, Turkey, as Greek guards fire tear gas to stop them. Others board dinghies to cross the fast-flowing Evros River that divides the two countries. Still others take the oversea route to Lesbos.
Under a 2016 deal with the European Union, Turkey received aid in return for stopping migrants from illegally entering Greece. But after 50 Turkish soldiers died in Idlib in northern Syria, where the Russian-backed Syrian army is trying to regain control, Erdogan said he needed more help from the EU. The latest unrest in Syria has displaced an additional 1 million people.
In a joint statement, EU ministers recognized “the increased migratory burden and risks Turkey is facing” but also denounced “Turkey’s use of migratory pressure for political purposes.”
Turkish government spokesman Ibrahim Kalin denied the country was imposing diplomatic pressure. “Our objective by opening the doors was not to create an artificial crisis, to place political pressure, or to serve our interests,” he said, noting Turkey’s capacity “has a limit.”
More than 1,700 migrants leaving Turkey have landed on Lesbos and other Greek islands since last week. About 20,000 asylum-seekers live in overcrowded camps on Lesbos. Already, one 4-year-old Syrian boy drowned at sea when an inflatable dinghy with 48 people on board capsized off the island.
At least one migrant died and five others sustained injuries after Greek soldiers fired on them, Turkey said. Greece has denied the accusations. On Thursday, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the country will deploy 1,000 officers from the special forces unit from its police force “to prevent the pushbacks.”
Moses Kamaras, a 34-year-old Sierra Leonean, told The Guardian he spent six months waiting in the Turkish capital of Istanbul before arriving at Lesbos. “Our engine was really weak, we were in the boat for four hours, and all the time I thought, what if I die?” he said. “I had waited a long time for this day.”
Last week, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said the country would transfer migrants who arrived on its territory illegally after March 1 to the northern city of Serres. “Our aim is to return them to their countries,” he said, sparking criticism from rights groups. Before the latest influx, Greek islanders on Lesbos and Chios had already protested the government’s plan to build new migrant detention camps. They opposed the refugee influx and called on the Greek mainland to host the migrants instead.
The European Union lauded Greece for acting as “the shield” of Europe’s external borders. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, promised to support the country with $780 million in financial aid for migration management. She also ordered the deployment of an additional 100 border guards and equipment from the EU border agency Frontex.
Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based think tank EDAM, acknowledged Turkey is bearing the consequences of a larger conflict. He called on Western nations to push for humanitarian intervention in Idlib, calling the situation there a crisis “unrivaled in its severity since the Yugoslav wars.”