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Turkey’s demographic terrorism

The strategic engineering of mass migration by Turkey against Greece and the European Union can be properly defined as demographic terrorism, writes Ioannis E Kotoulas

Ioannis Kotoulas , Tuesday 17 Mar 2020

Over the last two-and-a-half weeks since 29 February when the crisis first unfolded, Greece has faced the unprecedented state-sponsored mass movement of illegal migrants, an organised massive violation of its national borders and state sovereignty. 

There have been over 45,000 attempts to enter Greek territory illegally. There were 9,972 attempts to enter Greek territory on a single day (28 February). Three hundred and fifty one illegal migrants who had violated the border were arrested, and 50 of them have been sentenced to four years in prison and 10,000 euros fines for illegal border crossing. 

Of those sentenced, none came from Syria, a telling fact for the character of the crisis. This strategic engineering of mass migration by Turkey against Greece and the European Union in general can be properly defined as demographic terrorism. This is not a refugee crisis, but a case of the state-sponsored strategic engineering of mass migration.

Tens of thousands of illegal migrants that have resided for years in Turkey have now gathered along the land border that divides Greece and Turkey in Thrace, approximately along the route of the Evros River. Numerous organised groups of illegal migrants have attempted to enter Greek national territory in a violent way, attacking Greek policemen, border guards and military personnel. 

These illegal immigrants have attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to enter Greek territory, throwing rocks, flaming tree branches and other harmful objects against Greek police. They broke through the fence, violating Greek border structures, while in some cases they even used tear gas against Greek personnel provided to them by the Turkish authorities.

The vast majority of the violent migrants on Greece’s borders originates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and the Sub-Saharan African countries. These migrants have lived in Turkey for years, as their knowledge of the Turkish language demonstrates. A greater number of illegal immigrants has gathered on the shores of Turkey facing the Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean Sea. They have been provided with boats by the Turkish authorities, which have also facilitated the illegal crossing into Greece by pinpointing the most favourable routes.

Turkey’s implication in this unlawful activity is clear and by now well-documented. The sudden mass movement that has entailed some 70,000 migrants in total, formerly residing for years in Turkish territory and attempting to enter Greek territory, was initiated after the Turkish authorities encouraged the departure of migrants towards Greece. 

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a public speech that Turkey would stop controlling its borders and would allow migrants and refugees to exit Turkish territory and travel on to Europe. Turkey’s Minister of Interior Affairs Süleyman Soylu in a tweet commented that “the number of refugees that has left Turkey to Europe is 76,358. We have opened the doors. The refugees are free to stay in Turkey or to leave.”

Soylu’s comments did not reflect the realities on the ground and were part of a psychological operation against Greece. The Turkish official TV media outlet TRT published a map in Arabic on Twitter talking of “the road map from Idlib to France and other European countries,” highlighting possible routes for the migrants through Greece.

Numerous groups of migrants have been transported to the Greek-Turkish border by the Turkish authorities themselves with buses or by the state-owned railway network without charge or even by rented taxis. In various cases, Turkish military vehicles have escorted the migrants all the way to the Greek border. 

Turkish policemen and gendarmerie have been firing tear gas against Greek policemen in the border region and coordinating violent attacks by the migrants against Greek policemen. Units of the Turkish army have attempted unsuccessfully to bring down the Greek border fence at night using vehicles and even an electric saw.

At the same time, Turkish soldiers have been deployed on the border, preventing migrants from returning to the interior of the Turkish territory. Many of the illegal migrants are organised into groups by the Turkish police and military.  


TURKISH TERRORISM: As noted above, this strategic engineering of mass migration by Turkey against Greece and the European Union in general can be properly defined as demographic terrorism. 

This is defined as the use or threatened use of engineered migration flows against the territorial sovereignty and border control of a state by a state actor or a non-state actor for strategic and/or ideological reasons. 

Demographic terrorism includes the strategic use of populations of a migratory or other status directed against the strategic interests of a state actor that is perceived as competitive by the party carrying out demographic terrorism. States that facilitate the outflow of illegal migrants towards the territory of another state can be properly classified as active state actors of demographic terrorism. In this context, Turkey serves as an example par excellence of a state actor engaged in demographic terrorism. 

Greece as a state that is a destination, immediate or transitory, of massive migration flows is a target state of asymmetric hybrid warfare by the neighbouring state of Turkey and various non-state actors, such as ideologically committed NGOs. In this context of the strategic instrumentalisation of massive migration flows, Turkey functions as an active state actor of demographic terrorism against Greece and its national security and state sovereignty.

Turkey is taking advantage of the fact that since the eruption of the Syrian Civil War it has become the largest transit country for mass illegal migration. Concerning Greece, Turkey’s objectives are to check the operational readiness of the Greek administration and military apparatus and to create regional zones of demographic instability in the Aegean Sea and land borders. Turkey is openly revisionist towards Greek state sovereignty in the Aegean Sea, disputing not only Greece’s right to extend its territorial waters to 12 miles, but also Greek sovereignty over small islands in the Aegean Sea. 

Concerning the EU, Turkey aims to blackmail diplomatic support in its confrontation in Syria and to extract additional financial aid for the accommodation of migrants and refugees and further concessions, such as visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens travelling in the EU.

Allowing the mass movement of illegal migrants through its territory towards the territory of Greece, Turkey de facto violates the EU-Turkey Agreement that was concluded in March 2016 with the goal of averting the massive influx of illegal migration to Europe. The agreement was concluded after the dramatic mass migration crisis of 2015, when over one million illegal migrants entered the European Union through the Mediterranean routes. According to the provisions of the deal, Turkey continues to receive generous payments in order to house and accommodate refugees and migrants, thus stopping further mass influxes into European territory.

The Turkish government was granted by the EU a payment of approximately six billion Euros, three of which were used for the accommodation and services offered to migrants residing in Turkey. Turkey assumed the obligation of stopping the mass influx into Europe and thus of controlling the outflow of migrants towards EU territory. In the years after the 2016 deal, Turkey violated the agreement constantly, however, and Turkey continues to allow the departure of migrants heading for Greece either through the land route in Thrace or by sea towards the nearby lying Greek islands in the eastern part of the Aegean Sea. 

Since 29 February, when Turkey declared that it would no longer hinder the movement of migrants towards the EU, this ambivalent stance transformed into outright violation and state aggression against Greece and the EU in a context of demographic terrorism.

Turkey’s demographic terrorism is directed mainly against neighbouring Greece, but also against the European Union as a whole. Turkey aspires to draw diplomatic, economic and strategic benefits from its engineering of mass migration. The EU has responded in a coordinated manner against Turkey’s blackmail by aiding Greece on both a financial and logistical level. Greece is to receive 700 million Euros to face the migration crisis, while Frontex police from the EU’s border agency have been deployed on the Greek-Turkish border. 

Greece’s decisive stance to safeguard its borders and thus the EU borders has led to international support by both the EU and the US. Greece’s protection of EU borders is also crucial in order to avert the spread of the new Coronavirus by not allowing the unchecked movement of tens of thousands of illegal migrants through various EU states.

With its act of demographic terrorism against Greece and the EU, Turkey is more and more acting as a revisionist state actor that undermines fundamental notions of the international order, such as state sovereignty, border control and the legitimacy of a state’s actions to safeguard its territorial integrity. A radical change of approach among European decision-makers vis-à-vis Turkey’s destabilising and revisionist behaviour should now become a top priority for regional stability in the Mediterranean and Europe itself. 

The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens in Greece.


*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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