Since 29 February and for the whole month of March until the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, Greece, a strategically located country on the southern periphery of NATO and the European Union, faced the unprecedented state-sponsored mass movement of illegal migrants in organised violation of its national borders and state sovereignty.
Tens of thousands of illegal migrants that had resided for years in Turkey gathered along the land border that distinguishes Greece from Turkey in Thrace. Numerous organised groups of illegal migrants attempted to enter Greek national territory in a violent way by attacking Greek policemen, border guards and military personnel. From 29 February, when the crisis first unfolded, until the end of March, there were over 52,000 attempts to enter Greek territory illegally. Some 410 illegal migrants who violated the border were arrested, and 50 of them have been sentenced to four years in prison and a 10,000 euro fine.
Of those sentenced, none came from Syria, a telling fact for the character of the crisis. The vast majority of the migrants originated from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and the Sub-Saharan African countries. These migrants had lived in Turkey for years, as their knowledge of the Turkish language showed.
The Turkish army, gendarmerie and police participated in this unlawful behaviour against the personnel of an EU country. The implication of the Turkish authorities has been verified by the findings of the German Federal Intelligence Service, indicating that the Turkish government purposely incited the riots against Greek personnel on the border region by planting members of its security services among crowds of migrants.
Turkish policemen used tear gas against Greek security forces, the Turkish army attempted to bring down a part of the Greek border fence using a vehicle and electric saw, and Turkish soldiers were deployed on the border preventing migrants from returning to the interior of Turkish territory. Many of the illegal migrants were organised into groups by the Turkish police and military. In some cases, the illegal migrants had been transported to the borders by the Turkish authorities themselves in rented buses. The Turkish state media showed live broadcasts of the attempted influx in order to persuade more migrants to head for Greece, pinpointing the exact location of the land and sea routes towards EU territory and thus facilitating the outflow of illegal migrants towards the EU.
Attempts to illegally enter Greek territory were postponed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis in late March, and most migrants left the border area. The Turkish authorities removed the remaining 5,800 migrants from the Greek-Turkish border due to pandemic concerns. But the Turkish authorities still insist on the renewal of their demographic engineering and strategic use of migration flows. Greece brought the issue to NATO, accusing Turkey of directing an orchestrated and unprecedented attack on its borders and of a disinformation campaign. It accused Turkey of resorting to methods that violate the inherent values of NATO and emphasised that all the members of the alliance have the right to call for NATO’s solidarity.
Greece suspended the right of third-country nationals to apply for asylum for a period of one month in order to deal with the crisis. It did not violate international law in suspending asylum because its decision was based on Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which clearly states that “in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation any High Contracting Party may take measures derogating from its obligations under this convention to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation, provided that such measures are not inconsistent with its other obligations under international law.”
Allowing the mass movement of illegal migrants through its territory towards the borders of Greece, Turkey de facto violates the EU-Turkey agreement concluded in March 2016 with the explicit goal of averting a massive influx of illegal migration to Europe. The EU-Turkey agreement was a direct result of the dramatic mass migration events of 2015. It allowed for unilateral actions in relation to the control of migration flows by the host state, in this case Turkey, which has managed to effectively instrumentalise migration flows. In 2020, this ambivalent stance transformed into outright violation and state aggression against Greece and the EU.
Turkey’s decision originates from various structural factors, including the difficult economic situation it has faced over recent years, in combination with setbacks in Syria and Libya. These factors have had a negative impact on the reputation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at home, causing increasing internal pressure. It is in this context that Erdogan has turned once again to the “migration weapon” in order to blackmail the Europeans.
Despite the aggressive Turkish policy towards the EU, EU elites continue to be trapped in anachronistic perceptions of the EU-Turkey relationship and of Erdogan’s intentions. The recent statements of several European politicians about offering more money to Turkey and taking more migrants do not indicate that they have understood the scope of the problem and Erdogan’s blackmailing tactics. On a theoretical level, the recurring confusion between the notions of refugees and migrants on the Greek and EU’s external borders should be avoided. Migrants residing for years in Turkey cannot be properly defined as refugees, since they are abandoning a safe country, namely Turkey, and attempting to enter EU territory not through official entry points but by violating Greek borders.
A “Coalition of the Willing” to accept a certain number of refugees, including women and children or unaccompanied minors, has been discussed by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, and the German Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer. But it is not realistic to focus only on those groups. Once admitted by the EU, they have the right to family reunification. EU legislation allows the admission of parents or grandparents of unaccompanied minor refugees for the purposes of family reunification. Thereafter, other family members have a very good chance to follow.
There is no doubt that the stability of Turkey is in the European interest and must be supported, but today’s confrontational policy makes this difficult. It must be made clear that ignoring the rights of EU member states and attempting to blackmail the whole Union will lead nowhere. In order to achieve this, the EU should provide strong support for Greece, which protects EU borders with efficiency. This support should not be limited to the political and diplomatic level, but should also include financial aid for border and security structures and logistical support. The deployment of FRONTEX personnel on both the land and sea borders of the EU in Greek territory is of the utmost importance.
The establishment of safe zones for refugees in countries adjacent to Syria is an important element to allow Syrians to stay in the region and to return home to rebuild their country as soon as possible. The EU should (co-)fund and organise such Refugee Safe Zones (RSZ) in countries like Lebanon or Jordan. These zones will not be just more refugee camps; they must be constructed and organised like new (temporary) cities, offering education and work opportunities. Furthermore, the RSZs should offer organised procedures for people seeking asylum in other countries.
A “stop-gap plan” needs to ensure the transportation of migrants who have been picked up at Europe’s borders or rescued from the sea to a migrant centre on an uninhabited island or, as an interim solution, to ships. Once there, their countries of origin must be determined, and those who have no prospect for asylum must be immediately repatriated. The others should be subject to an orderly, but swift, asylum procedure. The political and legal framework to enable this is overdue.
For a longer-term solution of the migration problem, a mid-term strategy with three layers is required. Layer 1 has the purpose to contain the “multipliers” for destabilisation, namely demographic development, environmental degradation and corruption. Consequently, it focuses on limiting population growth, environmental protection and minimising corruption as well as good governance. Layer 2 aims to achieve a broadly positive impact by implementing the most urgent measures for stabilisation and by dealing with the key problems in the social, economic, security and human rights sector. Layer 3 should narrow the gap to the developed world by achieving significant improvements in the sectors mentioned above.
Erdogan interprets every European concession as weakness and will continue to act accordingly in the future. It is an illusion to think that the fundamental problem of migration from Turkey can be solved by accepting a couple of thousand more migrants in Europe and by paying another billion to Turkey. More migrants will come, and more concessions will be demanded in an ever-repeating pattern.
Ioannis Kotoulas is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens. Wolfgang Pusztai is a security and policy analyst and director of the consultancy Perim Associates.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly